by Todd Feurer, Chris Tye and Samah Assad

CHICAGO (CBS) — Eight years after a watchdog report found the Chicago Fire Department didn’t have a system in place to measure response times for emergency calls, the city’s inspector general determined CFD still hasn’t made the necessary improvements.

The latest report from Inspector General Joseph Ferguson’s office found CFD’s data collection is still insufficient to fully analyze how quickly the department responds to emergency calls, and what they need to do to improve.

The report found that, since a 2013 audit of CFD response times, the department still has not implemented the best practices, has not documented goals outside of a state-required plan, and “has not demonstrated a commitment to transparency with regard to measures of department performance.”

“Without transparent reporting, CFD cannot be fully accountable to the public for its response time performance,” the report stated.

According to the report, the National Fire Protection Association recommends fire departments strive to ensure a response time of 5 minutes or less for at least 90% of the medical calls they receive – something CBS 2 previously uncovered in its own analysis of response time data.

The inspector general’s office report said it still cannot fully evaluate CFD’s response times, largely due to a lack of proper data.

“CFD has not implemented performance management strategies that would allow it to evaluate fire and EMS response times in alignment with best practices. Nor has the Department remedied data issues identified in 2013,” the report stated.

Among the specific problems the inspector general found at CFD, the report stated the department continues to use averages to measure response times, rather than by the percentage of response times that meet national standards, as recommended by the National Fire Protection Association.

According to the report, CFD insists that, because of the large number of calls it gets, using average response time is an appropriate measurement. However, the report notes that measuring the percentage of response times that meet national standards is still a better measurement.

“CFD is correct that a large dataset will make an average more consistent. However, regardless of the number of fire and EMS runs being analyzed, the percentile approach better reflects expected performance while allowing for unusual cases,” the report stated.

In its report, the inspector general’s office recommended CFD “acknowledge the importance of department-wide quantitative performance measures and begin public annual reporting on its response time performance.”

“CFD management should establish and document department-wide turnout, travel, and total response time goals at the 90th percentile for both fire and EMS. If CFD management believe NFPA recommended turnout and travel times are unachievable in Chicago, they should conduct a systematic evaluation of local factors affecting response times and set reasonable goals for turnout, travel, and total response times accordingly,” the report stated.

However, according to the report, CFD management said it does not have the staff to conduct an annual review and publish annual reports on response times. But the department said it’s taking steps to fix that issue, such as hiring additional staff and working with Urban Labs at the University of Chicago to help analyze response time performance.

The department also said has not established official performance metrics because they fear it could lead to “unwanted competition” among firehouses, or encourage reckless driving by first responders.

Ferguson, however, said that argument doesn’t hold water.

“I don’t know what to say. When your job is to rush to get to a place, to say that having metrics will have us rush to get to a place, no. That was part of the old game,” Ferguson told CBS 2’s Chris Tye.

It’s a game CFD hasn’t wanted to give up.

“There are some parts of city government that clung more tenaciously to the old ways of doing things.  CFD’s pretty close the top of that list,” Ferguson said.

But the clinging has loosened.

“What we’ve found is we are in exactly the same place, but there is an intention to approach it differently by the department,” Ferguson said. “Which is why I say it’s a pretty big deal to clear that first hurdle.”

Isn’t eight years an eternity to get to clear that hurdle?

“Yes,” Ferguson said.

It’s an eternity on a topic where life and death are on the line.

“They need to get into the 21st century. This is not the first time we have spoken of it,” Ferguson said.

Could being stuck in the last century be putting lives at risk?

“We should assume that, in absence of evidence to the contrary, that in some ways, in some places, at some time, the answer may be yes. We just don’t know,” Ferguson said.

For years, the CBS 2 Investigators have been reporting on excessive Chicago ambulance response times that can endanger people with medical emergencies. Part of the problem is the city’s ambulance shortage.

In March 2019, CBS 2 Investigator Pam Zekman documented how, even after adding five new ambulances to the CFD fleet in the summer of 2018, it wasn’t enough to reduce chronically slow response times to emergency calls.

With the summertime addition, the fleet was up to 80 ambulances. It wasn’t enough, according to a top CFD paramedic.

“A hundred was the number we felt we needed,” Chicago Fire Department Paramedic Field Chief Patrick Fitzmaurice said at the time.

Fitzmaurice has criticized the fire department for years for not adding more ambulances.

“It was putting a Band-Aid on a wound that needed a tourniquet,” said Fitzmaurice.

Also in March of 2019, the CBS 2 Investigators compared ambulance response times for the four months before the new ambulances were added to the same four months after the addition. That is more than 200,000 lines of data, from the OEMC.

The analysis revealed that the average response times improved just four seconds– from seven minutes, 22 seconds to seven minutes, 18 seconds.

The state standard is six minutes.

At the current fleet level of 80 ambulances, Chicago ranks last in number of ambulances per one thousand people when compared to other big cities.

If Chicago added 20 more ambulances the rate of ambulances per 1000 people jumps to 3.7 per 1,000 people — meeting national norms.

A recent industry report agreed with Fitzmaurice and others saying the Chicago Fire Department needs to bring its fleet up to 100 ambulances.

In December 2019, the CBS 2 Investigators analyzed a database of 715,140 medical emergency calls made to 911 in Chicago, where an ambulance or fire truck responded. Our team obtained the data through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the OEMC. In 19 percent of calls, it took an ambulance more than seven minutes to get to the scene – despite the Fire Department’s commitment to a six-minute response time. Sometimes, the results were tragic.

Tina Williams bled to death on the steps of her home after family made repeated 911 calls. It took eight minutes for an ambulance to arrive.

“I blame the city, because if we would have had the proper help, she would have made it,” Arieal Curuth, Williams’ granddaughter, told Zekman.

Last November, Fitzmaurice said the pandemic, and the need to sterilize ambulances after every run to prevent the spread of COVID-19, is adding to the problem.

“You don’t have an option to shortchange that process,” he said. “But sometimes, they’re doing that to get out, because they’re begging – literally begging – for ambulances to come up.”

And sometimes, there just isn’t an ambulance available.

In our December 2019 report, CBS 2 analyzed and mapped each call by the neighborhood where it was made. Zoom in and click on a circle for more information about response times in that neighborhood. Click the arrows on the left to learn more.

The inspector general’s latest report does not discuss the department’s ambulance shortage, but stated CFD does not produce annual reports that would allow the department to evaluate response times, nor does it separately measure both “turnout time” for a call – the amount of time it takes from acknowledging a call to the city’s Office of Emergency Management and Communications and when a crew leaves for the scene – and the travel time for responding units.

“Notably, we recommended in 2013 that CFD correct these issues,” the report stated.

The inspector general analyzed records for nearly three years of emergency calls from Jan. 1, 2018 through Nov. 30, 2020, and found only 75% included sufficient data to calculate both turnout and travel times.

“CFD acknowledges that it has been aware of data reliability issues since at least 2013, but has not remedied them,” the report stated.

Part of the problem, according to the report, is that tracking travel times relies on CFD crews pressing a button on their rig when they leave for a scene, and then again when they arrive. But crews sometimes fail to press the button, either due to a lack of training, or because they’re in a rush to respond to an emergency. CFD also blamed poor radio transmission in some areas of the city.

The report stated CFD is in the process of upgrading its computer aided dispatch system, which is scheduled to go live in November 2022.

As noted in the background of this report, CFD is in the process of upgrading its CAD system. The new system is scheduled to go live in November 2022.

“CFD should work with OEMC to assess the root causes of data gaps and address these issues moving forward so that these gaps are not recreated in the new CAD system. Specifically, CFD should pursue system capabilities that will allow it to analyze turnout and travel time, thereby giving the Department a better understanding of potential issues in its response process,” the report stated.

Meantime, the inspector general’s office recommended CFD work with OEMC to use existing GPS technology in Fire Department vehicles “to address blank and inaccurate time fields.”

The report also recommended CFD identify and fix the cause of its overall data gaps, and consider hiring an internal data specialist to improve data quality.

According to the report, CFD leadership has said it will implement the inspector general’s recommendations, and is working with the Urban Labs at the University of Chicago to help with analysis of its response time performance. CFD also said it will work with the city’s budget office and Department of Human Resources to hire additional data analytics staff to help “perform a complete and reliable measure of response time by each component piece and in total, reported as a percentile measure.”

In a statement to CBS 2, a Fire Department spokesman said, “CFD worked closely with the OIG on the audit and thanks them for the research and findings. We will work with OEMC to improve methods of tracking and reporting response times as part of our continued efforts to respond  rapidly and safely  to all calls.”

CBS 2 reached out to the mayor’s office regarding Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s pledge to move the city from 80 CFD ambulances to 100. They did not get back to us.

We will keep at them.

Ferguson said he’s hopeful CFD will make the necessary changes, though he stressed it’s a trust but verify situation.

Even though Ferguson himself is stepping down at the end of the week, the inspector general’s office will continue to monitor and inspect to make sure CFD lives up to the promises it made; promises you may need to count on in the event a 9-1-1 call is in your future.