Are we doing this right? – Fire Departments

Are we doing this right? – Fire Departments

We’re starting a new series on the Go Cultivate! podcast called “Are We Doing This Right?” Once a month we’ll pick a topic – some element of the way we design or operate our cities – and honestly ask the question: Are we doing this right? We’ll explore common assumptions, bust (or uphold) a few myths, and try to get toward a sense of what we might be able to do differently (based on the experiences of those who have already tried it themselves). 

This month’s topic: Fire departments!

Fire departments. Public safety. You hardly hear one of these phrases without the other following shortly behind. The idea, of course, is that fire is an ever-present threat to human safety, no matter where you are. The fire department—and the development codes that work along side it—are supposed to make the city safer as a whole.

A pretty uncontroversial notion, right?

Well, we wanted to take a closer look at the ways fire response is informing the physical form of our communities. Is there any chance that our attempts to optimize for fire response make our cities less safe in other ways? 

For the most part, the history of fire fighting truly is a history of making cities safer places to be. Much of the progress centered on issues such as codifying building exits and reducing flammable materials. Starting a few decades ago, though, we started seeing the incorporation of emergency vehicle access requirements into city zoning codes. The idea being, in the event of fires still occurring, we should make it easier for fire response vehicles to get to the scene, set up, and control the fire. What that translated to was an increased focus on removing any obstacles that might get in the way: fewer obstacles in the way should equal a faster response time, and with fires, saving time could mean saving lives.

The idea makes sense. We should want fire fighters to get to the scene of a fire as quickly as possible. But, as we’ll see, the way we’ve chosen to go about that has left us in a tricky spot.

In this podcast discussion, which kicks off our new series Are We Doing This Right?, we explore the ways that fire standards have influenced the design of streets in our cities, and how our cities may actually be ending up less safe overall as a result. What got us here in the first place, and how might we approach fire response and public safety in a more holistic manner?

Listen in to hear us discuss, and then let us know your thoughts!

Want to read more? Here are some of the resources we used in compiling this episode:

Optimizing Large Vehicles for Urban Environments: Downsizing – December 2018, National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO)

It’s Time to Redesign the Big Old Red Fire Truck – Linda Poon for CityLab, Jan 21, 2016

The Fire Trucks Are Too Damn Big – Laura Bliss for CityLab, Dec 11, 2018

Are American fire trucks too big? – Robert Avsec for Fire Rescue 1 Product News, Mar 16, 2016

The Impacts of Changes in the Use of ISO Ratings by Insurance Companies Serving North Monterey County – Chris Orman, 2006

How Fire Departments Stopped Worrying and Embraced Safer Street Design – Angie Schmitt for StreetsblogUSA, May 29, 2018

Emergency Response & Street Design Initiative Report – Carl D. Wren for the Congress for the New Urbanism

“Saving Lives, Time, Money: Building Better Streets” – CNU Report, 2009

Walkable City Rules, Jeff Speck, 2018

How Fire Chiefs & Traffic Engineers Make Places Less Safe – Steve Mouzon, Original Green Blog, 2017

A Sneak Preview of "Walkable City Rules" (featuring “Rule 51: Expand the Fire Chief’s Mandate”) – Jeff Speck on Strong Towns, 2018

Are you in local government? Want to dig into this discussion with us and your peers?

We’re discussing this and other topics over on our brand-new online community, exclusively for local government employees.* Sign up for the Community Cultivators Network and join the discussion!

* The network is currently only for those wonderful folks out there who work in local government. If you’re not currently working for a city, town, or county, we still love you (and are sure many of you would add value to the community), but we want to keep our commitment to making this a community focused specifically on our friends working in local government. Thanks for understanding!

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