Fire brigade response times are lagging far behind best practice with fewer than half of fires attended to within the critical first 10 minutes.
Firemen say they should ideally be on scene within four minutes but, across all 29 local authorities surveyed last year, only an average of 45% of fires were attended within 10 minutes and 13% took longer than 20 minutes.
Authorities said they faced many challenges in trying to improve times, including traffic congestion, poor rural roads, personnel shortages in some retained fire services and the demands of training and retraining personnel.
Around 35,000 fires are attended by fire brigades every year but the number of fatalities has been declining from an average of 39 a year between 2002 and 2011 to 28 in 2012 and 24 last year.
However, John Kidd, chairman of the Irish Fire and Emergency Services Association, said this reflected greater fire safety awareness and use of smoke alarms among the public than any improvements in the fire service.
“Response times are getting worse,” said Mr Kidd. “If people are not already out of the building by the time we get there, the chances of us getting them out are slim.
“We’re not even likely to be able to save the building. We’re really looking at the properties to the right and left of it and trying to prevent fire spreading to them.”
Figures gathered by the Local Government Management Agency show wide variations in response times across the country last year. In Cork City, 91% of fires were attended to within 10 minutes but in the county, the proportion was just 36%.
Similarly, in Waterford City, fire crews were on the scene within 10 minutes in 81% of cases, but in the county area, the figure fell to just half that. Roscommon fared worst, with a rate of just 23%, followed by Kildare, Kilkenny, Donegal, and Cavan, all with rates of 28% to 29%.
Mayo had the greatest percentage of fires unattended for the longest time — one in four of all fires had no crew on scene for 20 minutes or more. In Cork City, the figure was just one in 300.
The report cautions against comparing counties because of vast differences in geographical features and road conditions. It was noted that some crews dealt with many bog and gorse fires that were not directly comparable with other incidents.
It was also pointed out that in the case of fires attended to by retained fire crews — who make up two thirds of the country’s 3,200 firefighters — it took between four and seven minutes to mobilise crews at the station.
Mr Kidd said the figures showed the pressure that crews were under, with fire services failing to expand to keep pace with the growing population and buildings now burning hotter and faster than before.
“Since 1990, they’re built to a standard designed to keep heat in but that extra insulation, in a fire, can be the worst scenario,” said Mr Kidd.
“In the old times, we had 26 minutes to get to a house before anything that remained inside was finished. With the new buildings, we’ve less than 10 minutes so response times should be less than four. Best international practice is less than four minutes.”
The Department of Environment’s Framework for Fire Safety report says retained fire crews should take no more than five minutes to mobilise.
It also says local authorities should try to increase the number of fires attended inside 10 minutes.