Emergency Fire Response: To Code 3 or Not Code 3

by | August 21, 2023

Your department might call it “Code 3,” “running code,” “going red,” or some other term. Regardless of what you call it, emergency response is one of the most dangerous things we do in the fire service. Responding to emergencies is at the core of what we do every day and the way we respond to these calls is sometimes as important as what we do when we arrive. The decision to respond Code 3 should be legal, responsible, ethical and policy-based.

Risk Management

As with many other aspects of the job, the emergency fire response itself must be subject to risk assessment and risk management.

In the simplest terms, Code 3 responses are intended to reduce response times, with the goal of saving lives and property. This is the benefit. The most serious risk is that someone could be injured or killed by responding apparatus. Because we respond to such a variety of incidents, this calculation should be considered on every call.

The NFPA estimates there were 18,775 collisions involving fire department vehicles in 2021 alone and these collisions had consequences. Between 2017 and 2021, 39 firefighters were killed in crashes while responding to or operating at incidents and 11 of those deaths involved department vehicles or apparatus. Data from the USFA and NHTSA indicates that 70% of apparatus collisions occurred during emergency responses. There are no recent studies on the effects of emergency responses on crash frequency.

In addition to the incidents involving fire department vehicles, 500 more collisions occurred involving firefighters responding in their personal vehicles, with an additional 200 injuries estimated.

What Constitutes an Emergency?

Some consider firefighting to be a selfless cause and our concern for the lives of others should affect our decisions. Although firefighters are often at risk for injury and death, 70% of fatalities in apparatus crashes occur in the other vehicle(s) involved. This is likely because of the size of our trucks. Today’s pumpers weigh in at 42,000 pounds or more and ladder trucks can have gross weight ratings upwards of 70,000 pounds.

In addition to the very real risk of injury or death, we must also consider the potential legal implications of our actions. In many states, responders are protected from litigation because of something called vicarious immunity. This is essentially when employees are shielded from being held liable for their actions when they are acting on behalf of their agencies. Even if you are afforded this protection, it is limited and won’t cover you if you aren’t following applicable laws or policies. Although emergency vehicle operators may be exempt from certain legal provisions during responses, state laws require them to drive with due regard for the safety of others. In addition to civil liability, an emergency vehicle operator involved in a crash can be charged criminally for their actions because the burden of responsibility is greater for them than for other drivers. If convicted, penalties could include imprisonment, fines, probation and revocation of their driver’s license.

The U.S. Department of Transportation defines a true emergency as “a situation involving a high probability of death or serious injury to an individual and action by the operator may reduce the seriousness of the situation.” This definition has been reaffirmed in legal decisions and is used in Emergency Vehicle Operator Course (EVOC) curriculum across the country. Often, the term “or significant property loss” is added to the definition to provide for responses to fires and other disasters where threat to human life is limited but potential property loss is great. Based on these terms, drivers and department leaders are still faced with determining whether they are responding to a true emergency.

Determining whether an incident is a true emergency lies with both the operator and the company officer. This decision should be supported by policies and procedures that align with state, local and federal laws. In addition to the legal factor, there are also human factors involved.

Consequences of Code 3

We know that a structure fire involves a high probability of death, serious injury and property loss. We also know that an unresponsive person is at a high probability of death or serious injury. These are the easy calls when it comes to deciding whether to run Code 3. The decision becomes more complicated when the information given to fire crews is not as clear. Consider the following fictional (but realistic) example.

A citizen is taking out their trash one evening and notices a burning odor outside. They call 9-1-1 and report their concern. An engine company is dispatched to investigate the cause of the odor. Simply by leaving the firehouse, that engine company is incurring risk.

As the rig turns onto Main Street, its lights are flashing, the siren is wailing, and the air horn is blaring. At the first intersection, the driver stops to make sure it’s clear to proceed, then continues on. As the engine company approaches a vehicle from behind, the siren winds up and the horn blasts again. The motorist panics and stops short in front of the apparatus.

The driver is unable to bring the 42,000-pound beast to a stop before striking the subcompact car. The captain reports the incident to dispatch as the crew checks for injuries. None of the firefighters are injured but in the car’s back seat, the passenger, a three-year-old boy, is severely injured and trapped.

The crew works to extricate the child while they await the arrival of additional resources. In the meantime, a second engine company is dispatched to the smoke odor. The other engine is coming from further away than the first company, so the response to the initial call is further delayed.

The crew is able to get the child extricated from the car within minutes and works with EMS to treat his injuries. Once the child has been transported from the scene, the captain and crew are hit with the gravity of what has occurred. They hurt somebody while trying to help someone else.

Moments later, Engine 2 is heard over the department radio: “Fire alarm from engine two, the odor was caused by the neighbor’s fireplace. Everything is OK here. We’re available.”

Now the reality begins to set in for the firefighters. All of this was for a smoke scare. That little boy is hurt, the car is totaled, and the fire apparatus is damaged enough to be taken out of service.

In addition to the human and financial impacts of this accident, the fire department risks losing public trust. Speaking of risks, they were realized here and they did not outweigh the benefit. Some might argue that a smoke odor call does not warrant a Code 3 response, while others would say a smoke odor can be the first sign of a structure fire and that any time saved could save lives.

Matters of Judgment

How many times have you responded to an incident that was reported as a “bad accident” or a “big fire” only to find a fender bender or a nuisance fire? You may have heard a friend or family member describe an incident they witnessed that “looked terrible” and after listening to their story, you think to yourself, “That’s not so bad”. You might arrive at the same scene and consider it a minor incident.

As first responders, we often view emergencies in a different light than the general public does. This is because responding to emergencies is our job. We respond to so many incidents that we may downplay the severity of certain situations. Based on our knowledge and experience, we are also adept at determining just how severe or emergent something is. Even with that knowledge, responders sometimes run Code 3 when it isn’t necessary.

Also, there are human factors that must be considered when planning emergency fire responses. As responders, we are limited to the information received by the 9-1-1 call-taker and the process used to collect that information. If the reporting party misinterprets the severity of the situation or is ineffective describing it, the dispatcher can be confused, leading to the incident being miscoded.

Policy Considerations

Some departments have policies and guidelines that dictate specifically what kinds of incident warrant an emergency response. While this type of guidance can seem useful because it simplifies the decision-making process for responders, the opposite may also be the case. If your department says units will respond with lights and sirens to “all reported fires” or “every traffic accident,” your agency and its people might be taking on more liability than they should be.

What if the reported fire is a campfire or the traffic accident involves no injuries or major hazards? Is it prudent to respond to these calls with lights and sirens? Leaders should consider these nuances when developing guidance on incident responses.

Policies are often considered restrictive as they limit what people are allowed to do but effective policies also need an element of permission. Your policy should give apparatus operators and officers the authority to upgrade or downgrade the response posture based on the information they receive about the incident. Without this, drivers may not think they are “allowed” to make an informed judgment call.

Other Considerations

Incident updates are crucial in determining our response posture. Your department might be dispatched for heavy, black smoke coming from the back of a house. This report justifies a structure fire assignment and the response should be Code 3. What happens, though, if a minute after being dispatched, you receive an update that the smoke has dissipated and that it “looks like it was from an old truck being started up”? This is when the response needs to be changed. While you may not be ready to reduce the assignment, it certainly makes sense to downgrade it to a non-emergency response for all but the first-due company.

Automatic fire alarms are another incident type where we should be reevaluating our responses. It is a widely accepted practice for fire departments to respond with lights and sirens to fire alarms. This is because fire alarms exist for one purpose, and that is to alert occupants and firefighters to a fire. But other factors should also play into response decisions here. Some buildings carry a higher life hazard depending on the time of day. Hotels are a good example of this. During normal business hours, hotels are likely to have far fewer occupants than they would have in the middle of the night and most of those occupants are likely to be awake. Because of this, our response may be different at a hotel during daylight versus nighttime hours. It may be prudent to send fewer companies or to only send the first-due company Code 3 during the day.

The threshold for carbon monoxide alarm activation is well below the level considered immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH), so many firefighters would agree that an alarm activation with no other concerns is not a true emergency. We should still respond, but the risks associated with a Code 3 response are not worth the time they are likely to save. That same alarm accompanied by an illness, a strange odor, or some other amplifying information might meet the description of a true emergency and warrant an emergency fire response.

Department leaders should take an honest look at the EMS calls their departments respond to and the posture with which they respond. If your department responds to doctors’ offices to treat or transport non-critical patients, you might consider responding to these in a non-emergency fashion. The patient is already in the care of a health care professional and the facility is likely equipped to handle acute medical emergencies until you arrive. A delay in response is unlikely to adversely affect the patient’s outcome.

To Code 3 or Not to Code 3?

Many factors should be considered when deciding whether to respond Code 3. This decision should be legal, responsible, ethical and policy-based. Firefighters must be aware of the risks they are incurring when responding to calls and they should have a firm grasp on what a true emergency is. Our efforts to save lives should not put others in undue danger. The next time you head out the door, consider and then reconsider the risks associated with your emergency fire response. It might just save a life.


  1. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Emergency Vehicle Operator Course: Ambulance, National Standard Curriculum, participant manual. Transportation Department, USGPO, 1995.
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