Fire departments propose new severity ratings

NEW YORK, NY—Municipal fire departments across North America are attempting to modernize their fire severity reporting scales in an attempt to allow statisticians to standardize the results.

The current “alarm fire” system in use in North America is vague and is difficult to compare across the continent. For example, a fire involving four fire trucks and two ladder companies could be considered a three-alarm fire, whereas a special tactical unit could make it a four-alarm. Not only is the system difficult to apply and not well understood by the public (other than “more is higher”), the scale is often misappropriated by vendors of spicy chicken wings.

This can make it a challenge to raise funds for struggling fire departments, as they cannot objectively demonstrate their efficiency or needs relative to the frequency and severity of fires in their communities.

To gain a better understanding of the progress being made, The Super Important surveyed several municipalities across North America. Three cities in the United States, two in Canada, and a representative of Mexico all participated in our survey and shared their proposals.

New York, NY, USA

The New York City Fire Department has proposed “hose-hours,” defined as the sum of the number of minutes each hose has been pointed at a fire, spraying water.

For example, a typical house fire might have two trucks with a total of four hoses spraying water for fifteen minutes. This is a one hose-hour fire.

“A typical house fire would be in the neighbourhood of a one-half to two hose-hour fire,” said Chief Whetley. “A large building or multi-home fire that involves, say, five engine companies and take an hour to put out might be 10 or even 15 hose-hours.”

FDNY believes the hose-hour system achieves two goals: it provides a much better standard for rating fire severity while remaining close to the current number-of-alarm system in magnitude.

Detroit, MI, USA

The Detroit Fire Department disagrees with the FDNY. They don’t support the hose-hour scale on the grounds that it presumes that the fire department has make an actual attempt to extinguish the blaze.

“We don’t try to put ’em all out,” said Anthony Dufresne, Chief Safety Officer of the Department. “Some of these buildings ain’t worth the effort.”

Detroit instead proposes a rating system based on whether anyone would bother with it, which is a scale from 1 to 2. A rating of 1 means the fire isn’t important and will be allowed to burn; a 2 indicates that it is potentially life threatening or an attempt was made to extinguish it. Numbers between 1 and 2 are not allowed.

“Most fires are gonna be a 1,” Dufresne explained. “2 is reserved for stuff that might be on the news.”

Santa Clara, CA, USA

While New York City took a somewhat practical approach, and Detroit opted for simplicity, the county of Santa Clara, California found these viewpoints to be insufficient to properly account for all factors and effects that contribute to the fire. It instead assembled a task force of local technology companies who have some operations in statistics.

They came up with a formula to express a fire’s severity, which can be understood thusly:

Sev = ----------------------------------- * Nv^2

Engine companies times gallons of water divided by engine companies, plus the sum of ladder companies and support units squared, plus injuries to the power of deaths divided by the number of paramedics on scene plus 1, all divided inverted population density times news vans squared.

The County itself cannot understand the formula or its relevance, but believes it will better communicate a fire’s severity and magnitude. Fire Chief Michael Delaney explained its application.

“If you have a fire in an apartment building, say a typical fire, 3 trucks show up, spray on 1340 gallons of water total, you divide that by… no wait, one supervisor and three ladders squared is 16, then you take that and times it by 3 trucks, wait, no, you add the trucks but there’s 1340 gallons, so… oh for Pete’s sake.”

The County promised to dispatch an analyst to explain to The Super Important how to actually apply the formula. When that happens, we will provide an update.


Various municipalities contacted in Mexico did not return our calls, however, businessman and former president Vicente Fox did respond on their behalf.

“Mexico will not pay for that fucking wall,” Fox said.

He did not offer any other comments.

Winnipeg, MB, Canada

The Fire Chief was unable to contact us, so instead, we spoke to a nice fellow named Brian who works as a dispatcher.

“So… we don’t have (a rating scale),” Brian said. “Every day, it’s minus 1000 degrees outside, so nothing ever burns. Except maybe garbage and coal, but that’s usually not too dangerous because there are people there burning it. Most fires are caused by hot elements left unattended, but as soon as the fire reaches the outer walls of the building, it goes away pretty quickly.”

We asked Brian what the fire department normally does while waiting for a fire to be reported if they are so rare.

“We’ve invented a lot of new types of chili,” he said. “We’ve gotten real good at it. Our chili is sold in cans nationwide. I believe we could give the Texans a run for their money.”

Quebec City, QC, Canada

Sebastien LaCroix, deputy chief of the Service de protection contre les incendies de Québec (Quebec Fire Protection Service) responded not with statistics but with words of caution regarding the severity of all fires.

“Le feu est mauvais. Nous n’aimons pas quand les choses brûlent,” LaCroix said. “Mon conseil pour commencer c’est de n’être pas sur le feu. Si vous êtes sur le feu, nous suggérons d’éteindre le feu pour empêcher les blessures.

“Sauf les Toronto Maple Leafs. Je souhaite que leur arène est réduit en cendres. Leurs fans sont tellement stupides qu’ils paieront pour regarder les cendres quelles auront mieux chance de gagner la Coupe Stanley.”

Overall, there appears to be an agreement that the current alarm-number system is insufficient to generate proper usable data that can be compared internationally. However, due to varying needs in each individual area, it is unlikely that the data will be usable any time soon.