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Thread: SmartCode under threat by the fire department: street widths and "seconds save lives"

  1. #1
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    SmartCode under threat by the fire department: street widths and "seconds save lives"

    The city where I work recently adopted the SmartCode. It's now under threat, because of complaints from the fire and rescue district that they didn't have say when the code was first considered, despite several workshops, charettes, and the like.

    We're now working on the final draft of the Unified Development Code, which is a replacement for our existing hodgepodge of zoning, subdivision, sign, landscaping, stormwater and other such regulations. Over the past several months, the UDC review process increasingly follows the "design by committee" school. Fire and rescue are involved in the review process. At the last UDC review meeting, fire and rescue were concerned about the usual: street widths. They wanted a minimum 20' clear zone on all residential streets, even despite strict interconnectivity requirements, other surrounding communities that have more progressive street design standards, and so on. I offered a presentation showing other development with narrow streets, information from the CNU Emergency Response and Street Design Initiative, the "Designing Streets" guide by Mary Stalker and Tom DiGiovanni, and so on. We argued thatthat narrower streets calm traffic, increase residential property values, are less expensive for developers to build, reduces a Texas-sized urban heat island effect, and are more effective at saving lives than streets solely designed to accommodate the largest apparatus in a worst-case scenaro (on-street parking with both sides full, one end of a block blocked). The committee (the city manager and other department heads) felt the "seconds save lives" argument of fire and rescue had more merit. The result: the type of street width requirements that communities are increasingly abandoning are going to live on here, even in TND projects.

    With the UDC review process winding to a close, fire and rescue wants to revisit the SmartCode. Their concern: street widths. The fire chief is very "old school", and the mindset extends to urban design. They want minimum 20' clear zones on every street, and 26' clear (!) on any street where the SmartCode permits structures over 30' tall.

    In the environment I'm working in now, I have to pick and choose my battles. Unfortunately, there's too many of them, and alteration of the street assemblies in the Smart Code is one that I'm going to have to fight, despite being battle-weary. Any changes to the street assemblies would severely undermine the SmartCode and our award-winning downtown plan. I fear this is another battle we planners -- and the residents of the city -- are going to lose.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  2. #2
    Cyburbian TexanOkie's avatar
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    I bet we could get the residents downtown to voice their support for what was passed and is currently the rule. They're all about old town being different from other areas.

  3. #3
    Cyburbian
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    I have always said that the only street a fire chief likes is one that they can drive two fire trucks down side by side without any kind of disruptions. Wide neighborhood streets are the biggest killer to pedestrian friendly neighborhoods (particularly when combined with garages facing the street as well).

    As an urban designer in a primarily suburban community (Salt Lake City metropolitan area), neighborhood street widths here can often be forty (40) feet from curb face to curb face. With parallel parking on both sides, this allows the 26 feet of clear driving lane that fire chiefs often want. It never surprises me when I drive down an overly wide neighborhood streets where the residents have requested that the City build speed bumps to slow down neighborhood traffic that can easily travel over 30 miles an hour without impediments.

    The only success I have had involves convincing decision makers that pedestrian safety is comprised by the wider streets and while the fire department may have better access they may be causing more pedestrian fatalities in the process. You may be familiar with the Longmont, Colorado street width and accident incident studies. Here is a link to the study that is often called the Swift Study.

    http://massengale.typepad.com/venust...afetyStudy.pdf

  4. #4
    Cyburbian ColoGI's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Dan View post
    The city where I work recently adopted the SmartCode. It's now under threat, because of complaints from the fire and rescue district that they didn't have say when the code was first considered, despite several workshops, charettes, and the like.

    We're now working on the final draft of the Unified Development Code, which is a replacement for our existing hodgepodge of zoning, subdivision, sign, landscaping, stormwater and other such regulations.

    With the UDC review process winding to a close, fire and rescue wants to revisit the SmartCode. Their concern: street widths. The fire chief is very "old school", and the mindset extends to urban design. They want minimum 20' clear zones on every street, and 26' clear (!) on any street where the SmartCode permits structures over 30' tall.

    In the environment I'm working in now, I have to pick and choose my battles. Unfortunately, there's too many of them, and alteration of the street assemblies in the Smart Code is one that I'm going to have to fight, despite being battle-weary. Any changes to the street assemblies would severely undermine the SmartCode and our award-winning downtown plan. I fear this is another battle we planners -- and the residents of the city -- are going to lose.
    Bah.

    These folk will always exist. Aurora CO re-did their code to include TOD and took Fire and other Public Safety out to a street somewhere and coned off sections that corresponded to the new widths, and had Fire drive their trucks in the new alignment.

    IIRC, Fire relented and one direction gets 26' and the other gets a minimum 24'. Last place I worked for had no problem with my proposed widths as they were going with Aurora and if Aurora said it was OK, fine with them.

    No need to lose the battle. Make an alignment and have Fire drive it. Done. If they won't play ball, then they don't want to play ball. That's all you need to know, and then the public will know too.

    Good luck.

  5. #5
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    I recently attended a form based code conference where this was discussed. The City of Hercules had the same issue, and even the UBC requires the 20' clearance, which is a clearly going against the movement to smaller streets. In order for form base to work, we have to get our streets smaller. Even though the FD was on board during the design phase of the plan, when it came to process tentative maps, they wanted the streets wider. After much wrangling they were able to keep the smaller streets with one condition, parking was limited to one side (it interchanges). The curb is painted red for X distance, than switches sides for X distance.

    ColoGI mentioned a demonstration, which is a great way to go. Get the fire department to a regular neighborhood and cone off the reduced width.They may be old school but you clearly need to demonstrate that they can get the job done. Plus, use statistics on your side. Over 95% of all calls to the FD are medical based calls. It is that rare 5% that involves an actual fire.

    If the fire department won't budge, than sprinklers might need to be installed to get the widths down. Pricey, but it is another route. I have links to the PowerPoint pictures and stats if you want to see me at the pm. Good luck.
    Men do dumb $hit... it is what they do to correct the problem that counts.

  6. #6
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    Connectivity and Sprinklers

    We fought the same battle when we did nearby San Antonio's UDC. While the fire departments usually resist narrower streets, they don't like the disconnected, one-way in / one-way out suburban network either. We developed a set of street design patterns for TND and similar developments and had some strong, initial resistance from the fire chief. However, we also included connectivity standards and required sprinklers for homes as part of project approval. These, along with some education on the how a narrow, interconnected street network really works (along the lines discussed in the prior threads) eventually won his support. There is an article in Planning magazine that discusses our experience ("The Great Sprinkler Debate," July 2005, at http://planning.org/planning/2005/jul/sprinkler.htm). The UDC was adopted unanimously.

  7. #7
    Cyburbian Tide's avatar
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    I wrote a quick story with some links on my blog last week about this topic. Help could be on the way this October. Check it out http://www.pioneerplanning.com/?p=82
    @GigCityPlanner

  8. #8
    Cyburbian Cardinal's avatar
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    Madison or Daen County, Wisconsin had a presentation on the web a couple years ago. The actually had the fire department drive trucks on streets that were different widths, photographing them and discussing how access was possible. If it is still available, it might be an excellent resource. You might also contact the fire department in Madison and see if there is someonw who can share their experiences with your fire chief. Remember that Madison also has to contend with snow, and if the street widths are acceptable, then there is less for your chief to find objectionable in Texas.
    Anyone want to adopt a dog?

  9. #9
    Cyburbian JimPlans's avatar
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    There was a presentation on this at the Florida APA conference in 2007 ("Balancing Life Safety with Traditional Neighborhood Development Standards"). You can read it online here:

    http://www.floridaplanning.org/confe...APAversion.pdf

    Design tricks like mountable curbs can make a street appear to be 20 feet wide but in act like wider streets when emergency and other vehicles need the space. Also, bump-outs at street corners to prohibit parking (though with mountable curbs) make actual turning radii larger. Personally, I think that prohibiting/removing speed humps would make more of a difference than narrow streets.

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    I've had this fight in every community I've worked in (except the one I work in now, where the fire chief is enlightened and supportive of small streets). I remind the fire department that they do have an "R" on their gear shift.

    And even more than the fire departments, is a fight with the state traffic engineers when they are reviewing neighborhood streets funded by grants.

    No solutions to this - sometimes I think the fire departments just play this game to show how much control they have over development. They have no research to back up any of their standards. They have never been able to prove that a 10 foot drive lane reduces response time by a minute. I would, in fact, ask them to prove that their standards are defensible (when it comes to public safety, they tend to ask the reverse....prove why you need less...rather than proving that their standard is outdated and expensive and, likely, ridiculous and without any proven data).

    I'm trying to find a letter that one of the most fabulous transportation planner/urban designers (Ian Lockwood of Glatting Jackson) wrote to our staff in support of small street design (road diet). It would be good for you to see. I'm having trouble finding it, but PM with your e-mail address, Dan, if you'd like to see it and I'll get it to you.

    You might also check in with the good folks at the Form Based Code Institute -- I"ve done some training through them and I think they could perhaps put you in touch with someone who has worked through these issues in another community (well...don't we ALL go through this when we try to implement new urbanism in our communities?)

  11. #11
    Cyburbian
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    Oh...I just looked at the powerpoint Jim put up....great resource. Dan Burden works with Ian Lockwood and I would think that either one of them would be able to arm you with some data to help in our fight! I've worked with both and they're amazing.

    Good article:

    (edited to add article)

    Urban Land Institute Magazine Article:

    Skinny Streets and Fire Trucks
    Author: Reid Ewing, Ted Stevens, and Steven J. Brown
    Publication: Urban Land Source: Urban Land Institute Publish Date: 4/2/2008
    Description: The main obstacle to skinny streets in the United States is no longer the city traffic engineer, but rather the local fire chief, who enforces the fire code with singular purpose.

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Random Traffic Guy's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by southsideamy View post
    No solutions to this - sometimes I think the fire departments just play this game to show how much control they have over development. They have no research to back up any of their standards.
    Agreed, and you should see what they do to modern roundabout principles when there is not enough understanding on both sides...

    Thanks for the resources everyone.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Form Based Code Link

    Here is a resource link:

    http://www.formbasedcodes.org/
    Men do dumb $hit... it is what they do to correct the problem that counts.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian dvdneal's avatar
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    I'd have to go with the driving demonstation. When dealing with fire fighters numbers and codes are not their strong suit. If they can see for themselves that it works, you don't have to prove anything, they just learn. It is possible for them to learn.

    Now of course they could also drive smaller trucks, but good luck getting that to happen.

  15. #15
    Cyburbian Raf's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by dvdneal View post
    Now of course they could also drive smaller trucks, but good luck getting that to happen.
    Funny you mention that? Why are the trucks always getting bigger and bigger... making up for something
    Men do dumb $hit... it is what they do to correct the problem that counts.

  16. #16
    Cyburbian Tide's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by CPSURaf View post
    Funny you mention that? Why are the trucks always getting bigger and bigger... making up for something
    As cities cut budgets and try to put less firefighters on the ground they have to take more in one truck than in two. Typical staffing is 3-4 firefighters per truck. Some cities has as few as 2.
    @GigCityPlanner

  17. #17
    Cyburbian kw5280's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by CPSURaf View post
    Funny you mention that? Why are the trucks always getting bigger and bigger... making up for something
    My father is a battalion chief and we've had this conversation before. I've told him I know smaller apparatus is available because I've seen it in several old European cities. His argument is he has to have more equipment available for any response to handle unknown situations with fewer men, similar to what Tide suggested. If they had more men then it's possible to have a variety of smaller vehicles. But cities are in the "more with less" mode. Having grown-up around the firehouse mentality I know trying to convince those guys smaller streets can work is a challenge.

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