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Demographic Factors of Emergency Call Demand

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Leonard N. Chan
July 18, 2020

Fire departments have been a staple of municipal government services in the United States since the colonial era. The scope of responsibilities for fire departments has continued to expand beyond fire suppression and fire inspections. In the early 1970s, emergency medical services began to come under the aegis of fire departments across the nation. Later in the decade, fire departments assumed responsibility for emergency responses related to hazardous materials incidents. Additional threats to public safety have since emerged or been identified. Fire departments often stepped up in providing at least first responder services related to confined space rescue, swift water incidents, search and rescue operations, and active shooter and hostile events. The increase in functions of the American fire service contributed, rather than detracted, to its core mission of saving lives and protecting property.

Core tenets for the Center for Public Safety Excellence (CPSE)’s agency accreditation program for fire departments centers on matching capabilities to risk as well as continuous improvement. Determining the capabilities necessary depends on more than the population served and square mileage covered. Measuring community risk also cannot rely on historic demand lines. Communities grow and evolve. Identifying underlying conditions allows fire departments to maintain effectiveness, efficiency and resiliency in provisioning services. Publicly available data can be accessed to support this process at no cost. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration records historic weather events. The United States Census Bureau releases annual updates on its American Community Survey, which includes demographic, social, economic and housing data. Other sources can serve a complementary role in helping understand the casual links between different variables and community risk. The United States Fire Administration maintains an online library of applied research papers from its executive fire officer program while the National Fire Protection Association and the National Institute of Standards and Technology have released its own research online.

The Houston Fire Department enlisted the support of Rice University’s Data-to-Knowledge (D2K) program in its efforts to develop a risk assessment specific to its community in spring 2020. The six-student team received instructions to remain data-driven and had no prior connections with the fire service. The six-student team completed visits to a fire station and the dispatch center and conducted an extensive literature review to obtain a working knowledge of their project. The team processed emergency response data alongside data from the Census’s American Community Survey. The skills applied are more often found in academia but can be applied at a practical level, even in a fire department. As part of its partnership with the university, the Houston Fire Department has access to the methodology used as well as the results. This transparency increases legitimacy to decisionmakers and allows for the study to be replicated in the future.

The D2K research team discovered not only that emergency call demand varies by different demographic factors such as race, income, age and English-speaking ability, but also that the type of emergencies encountered differ according to these demographic factors. For example, higher income areas tend to have a lower proportion of health-related emergencies but a higher proportion of fire-related emergencies. Areas with older populations, rental housing or more males tend to have a higher percentage of mental illness-related emergency call volume. The D2K research team demonstrated the accuracy of its models by illustrating their predicted findings with historical data. This information has the potential to shape how Houston Fire Department deploys its safety education and emergency response resources.

During the research period, the COVID-19 pandemic started to sweep across the nation. The information provided to the D2K research team included Houston Fire Department emergency response data through mid-April 2020. The D2K research team noted an overall decline on Houston Fire Department emergency response demand during the tail end of the data provided. The drop was especially notable for certain types of emergency incidents such as motor vehicle accident responses due to the downscaling of economic activity. The D2K research team, however, cautioned that certain demographic factors related to health, diversity and poverty may lead to a higher volume of COVID-19 emergency responses. The areas that have higher volumes of COVID-19 responses may have historically experienced lower overall call volumes. This may lead to a mismatch of capabilities and risk. The D2K research team issued recommendations to help the Houston Fire Department prepare for this scenario.

Analyzing demographics should be part of a larger equation when developing a community risk assessment. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, in its Local Mitigation Planning Handbook, advises other aspects of community assets including that the built environment, natural environment and economy should be evaluated alongside an assessment of natural hazards. Outside entities may be necessary to provide assistance. Understanding risks equips a municipality to target its capabilities in preventing, mitigating and responding to threats to life and property. For a place like Houston, these threats range from routine emergency medical incidents to hazardous materials incidents to major flooding events. The Houston Fire Department must be prepared to meet the wide range of challenges. Changing circumstances, including the COVID-19 pandemic, may compel changes in these calculations.


Author: Leonard N. Chan graduated from Rice University with a Bachelor of Arts in political science, religious studies, and history, and he earned his Master of Public Administration from University of Houston. Chan’s previous experience includes serving as an analyst for Texas Sunset Advisory Commission and Cedar Park Fire Department. He currently chairs the Texas Center for Public Safety Excellence Consortium and is the Houston Fire Department accreditation manager. He is a member of the Central Texas and Greater Houston chapters of the American Society of Public Administrators.

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