WHEN SHOUTING “FIRE” IS UNHEALTHY: Balancing Emergency Access, Travel Safety, and Public Health

Arriving late is every emergency worker’s nightmare. EMTs and firefighters know that new construction materials – plastics and composites – burn fast and release unpredictable clouds of toxic fumes.  It is estimated that people have about 3 minutes to escape the heat and smoke once a fire starts, down from nearly 17 minutes forty years ago.  Response speed spells life or death not only for the residents but also for the fire fighters, whose ever-larger ladder trucks and pumpers need to fight through traffic congestion and tight intersections.   In fact, given our increasing awareness of the potential need for mass evacuations under catastrophic conditions, creating a transportation system that allows emergency movement is a matter of both public safety and national security.

So it’s not surprising that fire chiefs in many communities have fought for wide traffic lanes and intersections – a concern often shared by bus drivers and snow-plow agencies.  But this has repeatedly brought them into conflict with the growing public demand to slow traffic and create more livable streets whether under the label of “Complete Streets”, “New Urbanism”, “Traffic Calming and Road Diets”, or “Creating Better Balance Between Car, Bike, and Pedestrian Facilities”.

The good news is that there are many ways to make streets more inviting to pedestrians and cyclists of all ages and levels of traffic tolerance while also keeping them accessible for emergency vehicles (and for buses and snow plows, too!).

Rather than leave emergency responders, transit agency, and public works managers, out of the transportation planning process, forcing them to annoy everyone by angrily objecting to road designs at the last minute, those of us on the road redesign side of the process need to get them involved earlier – and show them that livable streets are actually safer (and healthier!) as well as more enjoyable.



Firefighters are the front line of our emergency response systems.  However, for firefighters and EMTs (often, these days, the same people) their ability to respond has been impacted by budget-constrained closures of fire stations and reduced staffing. When the Boston Globe researched the situation in 2005, it found that “only about half of the local fire departments in the state – 54 percent – met the fire industry goal of arriving within 6 minutes of the first alarm at 90 percent of building fires.”

Of course, many fire departments haven’t helped by refusing to regionalize staffing, equipment or even dispatch centers.   The Boston Globe 2005 articles noted that Massachusetts had over 360 separate fire departments, each with its own hierarchy of officers, equipment, and service contracts.  And recent scandals about firefighter disability fraud, potential drug abuse, and union intransience have tarnished their public image.

Fortunately, there are enormously fewer fires these days – the number dropped by nearly 60% since the late 1970s – partly because of better fire codes and sprinkler regulations but also because the decline of cigarette smoking has reduced a major cause of residential fires.  In order to fill the gap, fire departments have become emergency responders with nearly 65% of their calls now being for medical aid and other non-fire reasons.

Significantly, as fire departments evolve into first responder health care agencies, the context for their work has also changed.  If their mission now includes protecting the public from the effects of heart attacks, strokes, and other acute attacks, then they are also beholden to acknowledge the value of creating a transportation system that reduces the likelihood of these diseases.

And here’s where it gets interesting.

Among the more effective methods of protecting public health is to reduce the typical speed of automobiles to reduce likelihood of an accident and the severity of injury should an accident occur.  Another method is to promote physical activity – walking or bicycling – rather than using a car, thereby not only reducing the odds of an injury-causing accident but also reducing the odds of heart attack, stroke, and a host of other illnesses.  (Research shows that people who regularly commute by bike have significantly lower morbidity levels – even lower than recreational athletes who drive to work.)   And among the most effective ways to doing all this is employ “traffic calming” techniques to slow down motorized traffic, “road diet” strategies to narrow or reduce the number of car lanes, and generally restructuring the public right of way to be more pedestrian-friendly and cycling-friendly.

Adding to the complexity is that increasing numbers of the public want their streets to be quieter, slower, safer, friendlier, and more multi-modal.  A huge number of cities and states are adopting “Complete Streets” policies.

We know that speed kills – someone hit by a car going 40 mph has an 80% chance of being killed.  If the car is going 20 mph there is a 95% chance of surviving.  But speed also is at the core of a fire department and ambulance’s mission.  What’s a fire chief to do with these contradictory needs?

In some cities, fire department leaders have gotten ahead of the curve – and found that it’s a place they can drive in.  For example, bike lanes provide parked-car-free extra width when traffic lanes have been narrowed.  Similarly, making it easier for pedestrians to cross the street by installing “bulb-outs” also turns out to be an effective way to prevent car drivers from parking too close to the corner.  And if the curb cuts are kept close to the intersection, or if western-style “mountable soft curbs” are used (rather than the eastern style of sharp-edged curbing), it is pretty easy for fire trucks to speed around the corner.  It’s even easier when the fire department realizes that new pumping and ladder technologies mean that they don’t need so many really big (and really expensive) trucks. (On the other hand, snow plows sometimes find it difficult to maneuver around the extensions which therefore sometimes need to be modified from standard dimensions.)

Fire trucks and big snow plow movement isn’t impeded if cities install “speed cushions” (roughly square-shaped elevations that are placed on the road to have gaps located at the specific axel-width spacing needed by these wider vehicles – and by bikes) rather than “speed bumps” or “raised intersections

In fact, designing for “active transportation” and “new urbanism” – if done right – can help facilitate emergency response capabilities.  Fire departments in cities across the US, and the world, have grasped and used this reality.  But we can’t assume that every Fire Chief will get it on his or her own.  Livable streets advocates within municipal and state transportation departments have to take the initiative. They have to get in touch with local Fire Departments early in the design process.  If necessary (and it will often be necessary, at least at first), the Fire Department should be allowed to test various designs, using temporary cones or other methods to see if their equipment can deal with the proposed street layout.  The City of London, Ontario, set up a test speed cushion directly in front of the main bus terminal – and then had the Fire Department run its own vehicles over the asphalt as well.

In cities across the US, from Portland (OR) and San Francisco (CA) to Arlington (VA) and Cambridge (MA) fire departments have learned that they can live and work with people-friendly streets.  We need to keep expanding the ranks of these progressive emergency response leaders because changing national standards will require changes in the positions held by national fire fighting standards-setting groups, and it’s likely that traditionalists in those groups will be very reluctant to change.

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