Narrow Streets and the Fire Truck: Workshop reveals common ground

When you dial 911, you don’t really care how the emergency responders reach you, so long as they do. And they want to reach you before brain damage begins, usually within four to six minutes, or before the fire flashes over to engulf your entire home in about the same amount of time.

Those straightforward desires too often collide when the new urbanist desire for narrower streets meets national fire codes mandating 20-foot-wide clear fire lanes. All too often, the result is frustration and bitter feelings when new urbanist projects are rejected or altered, or when new urbanists make plans without consulting fire marshals at a point in the process when discussion and compromise could make a difference.

Yet there is common ground, too; more than perhaps new urbanists or firefighters realized before this week, when the Congress for the New Urbanism and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took the first steps toward changing that unhealthy dynamic.

About two dozen fire marshals, planners, traffic engineers and architects spent Tuesday and Wednesday, just before the start of CNU XVI, delving into the complexity of streets, intersections and turning radii, the impact of alleys, emergency response times, fire engine size, how firefighters deploy themselves and their equipment at a fire scene – and how all those elements interact and affect each other.

Organized by Patrick Siegman, a principal with Nelson\Nygaard, and moderated by Jim Charlier, president of Charlier Associates, Inc., the workshop featured presentations by a strong lineup including Carl Wren, chief engineer of the Austin Fire Department, and Neil Lipski, a former deputy chief of the Milwaukee Fire Dept.; Peter Swift, president of Swift & Associates, Rick Chellman, a principal withTND Engineering, and David Sargent, an architect with Moule & Polyzoides.

“I think it’s a good start in trying to break down some of the barriers,” said Norman Garrick, a CNU Board member and workshop participant. “The problem we have is that we do everything piecemeal. … Some problems are difficult, but the only way to work together is to understand both sides of the issue.”

Both groups agree, for example, that street grids connecting neighborhoods to each other and their larger communities are miles better than the typical suburban system of segregated uses in pods along collector and arterial roads. And that the sooner developers involve the fire marshal, the more likely they will reach a compromise with which everyone can live.

Further information about the workshop’s results and the Smart Growth Streets/Emergency Responders project will be detailed today during the concurrent session Narrow Streets and the Fire Truck, from 2:15 to 3:30 p.m. in Meeting Room 8.


Keep on Point

As a group we need to keep on point and focus on the real issue at hand: required 20' clear. There are countless documents and reports on designing roads and street networks that are safe from a variety of perspectives, including emergency services.

The problem lies with the arbitrary 20' clear rule in the National Fire Code (NFC). NFC is a privately developed document by a group of book sellers who have no professional standing in street design. The CNU should start by exposing this arbitrary rule to cities that are or have adopted the NFC.

The CNU needs to keep focused on the fact that the required 20’ clear is an arbitrary rule developed by National Fire Code (NFC) an unqualified organization that has no professional standing.

Edward W. Erfurt IV

Glatting Jackson Kercher Anglin, Inc.
120 N. Orange Ave
Orlando, Florida 32801
407.843.6552ph 407-839-1789fx

Keeping on Point

The need to get rid of the mandatory 20-foot-clear rule is foremost in our plans. The key will be amassing the research that will help make our case to the national code agencies.

To that end, we welcome any and all suggestions of research, papers, and studies proving narrow streets in the traditional grid network help reduce emergency response times and improve overall traffic safety. If you're aware of something we should read or have on hand, please let us know.


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