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Dissecting ISO 37120: Fire and emergency response indicators -- how safe is your city?

Submitted by scc staff on August 20, 2014

By George Karayannis, LEED AP

Image removed.We continue our series on the new ISO 37120 Smart City standard with a look at the sixth of 17 themes defined in the standard -- fire and emergency response indicators.  As previously described, ISO 37120 includes 46 ‘Core’ (must report) and 54 ‘Supporting’ (should report) indicators.  (If you've missed any of the previous themes I've covered, they are linked at the bottom of this page.) The fire and emergency response theme has three Core and three Supporting indicators.

Firefighting is one of the essential services cities provide, and an effective firefighting capability is critical to protecting life and property.  Devastating city fires have occurred throughout history, including the Fire of Moscow in 1547, which led to rebellion, the Great Fire of London in 1666, which led to the creation of fire brigades by insurance companies, and the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, which led to stricter fire and building codes.  Although firefighting is largely a matter of local jurisdiction in the U.S., many countries have more centralized fire departments, which underscores the challenge of reporting this information at the city level.

This theme measures a city’s ability to protect life from both natural and man-made emergencies, and normalizes the metric per 100,000 population to enable smaller cities to be more readily compared to cities with larger populations and greater resources. 

“Standardized life safety indicators such as those in ISO 37120 can help cities around the world benchmark their operations, improve their service levels, enhance fire safety education and perhaps even save more lives,” said Constantin Schlachetzki of Siemens AG and Vice Chair of the German Mirror Committee for TC268.

How does your city measure up against the fire and emergency response indicators detailed below?

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Core Indicators

1.    Number of firefighters per 100,000 population.

This indicator only measures active full-time, or career, firefighters functioning in a fire suppression capacity.  Typically, U.S. cities with populations greater than 25,000 tend to have career firefighters, while smaller cities tend to have volunteer or part-time firefighters. The U.S. average is 167 full-time firefighters  per 100,000 population, according to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA).  The cities with the highest average, based on my research, tend to be medium-sized cities such as Birmingham, Alabama (308) and Memphis, Tennessee (282). 

2.    Number of fire related deaths per 100,000 population.

Image removed.This ISO indicator includes deaths directly attributable a fire, with death occurring within 30 days. It reflects characteristics such as a city’s housing age and density, code enforcement and the prevalence of smoke detectors.  Worldwide death rates from fire vary widely as shown in the table from The Geneva Association, which includes the top three and bottom three death rates per country. It appears that residents of Finland, for example, are about 10 times more likely to die from fire than are residents of Singapore.  According to the NFPA, the long-term U.S. trend in fire deaths  has been sloping substantially downward for nearly every state since 1980.

3.    Number of natural disaster related deaths per 100,000 population.

Natural disasters affect all parts of the world, with some low-lying areas such as Bangladesh especially disaster-prone.  Scientists now believe climate change will continue to threaten coastal populations through more frequent and increasingly fierce natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, which in 2005 killed at least 1,836 people and caused an estimated $82 billion in economic impact.  This indicator reflects a city’s vulnerability to natural disasters, as well as its ability to respond, which in turn reflect its overall attractiveness to citizens and investors. To date there has been a lack of international consensus regarding best practices for collecting and reporting this data, so ISO 37120 should prove helpful in this regard.

Supporting Indicators

1.    Number of volunteer and part-time firefighters per 100,000 population.

This indicator includes both volunteer firefighters as well as part-time firefighters who are paid per incident.  According to the NFPA there are 783,300 volunteer firefighters in the U.S., comprising 69% of the nation’s fire service. That represents a 13% decline since 1984.  Most countries rely on volunteer firefighters, especially in smaller towns and rural areas, though Chile is the only country with an all-volunteer firefighting force.

2.    Response time for emergency response services from initial call.

This indicator reflects how protected citizens are from security and safety threats, which is an especially valuable operational measure from a citizen’s perspective.  It is reported that the U.S. national average police response time is 11 minutes, though a national standard for measuring emergency response times doesn’t exist.  “It’s very, very tough to compare,” said Nahanni Pollard, faculty and criminology coordinator at Douglas College in New Westminster, British Columbia. "It’s really a mildly irritating and complicated system.”  ISO 37120 addresses this discrepancy by requiring that all distress calls be used in the calculation.

3.    Response time for fire department from initial call.

This indicator is similar to the previous one but is focused exclusively on fire response times.  Unlike police response time reporting, fire response time measurement and reporting appears to be better defined and more methodical. According to the U.S. Fire Administration the average U.S. fire response time is less than 8 minutes, with 90% of the calls responded to in less than 11 minutes.  ISO 37120 calculates both this and the previous indicator based on the preceding 12 months.


George Karayannis has over 25 years of emerging technology and complex solutions sales, business development and marketing experience and has held leadership positions at Schneider Electric, Lockheed Martin Energy Solution, AT&T and wireless sensor startups.  He has also served as a city councilman and is restoring a 100-year old opera house to LEED Gold status. @gkarayannis

Next in the series: Governance indicators for smart cities

Previously in the Dissecting 37120 series: