Guest Commentary: Changes at Fire Dept Provide Opportunity for Better Streets
John Riecke lives in the Sun Valley neighborhood with his wife, Susan, and dog, Remy. He is an investment advisor by trade but spends his evenings advocating for safer streets and a growing city. He is also a founding member of the Denver Bicycle Lobby. You can find him on Twitter @jcriecke or visit the DBL Facebook page to find more.
The opening at the head of the Denver Fire Department created when Chief Tase recently stepped down represents an outsized opportunity to improve livability and reform how Denver’s streets are built and maintained. What if, by choosing a forward-thinking fire chief, we could reduce the number of car crashes on Denver streets? What if our choice could allow us to save money on street construction and maintenance? What if we could have a safer, more livable city simply by providing the new chief with a better set of criteria for the job?
The fire department has a lot of sway, sometimes even veto power, over how wide, expensive and dangerous city streets are. In the article “Fire Apparatus: Past and Present,” published in an April, 2006 edition of Firehouse magazine, longtime FDNY battalion chief John A. Calderone noted that, in an effort to make fire response both quick and cost efficient, cities have fallen into the habit of buying the biggest trucks they can find – giant swiss army knives able to respond to any and all emergencies, no matter the type.
While this strategy has lowered fire department procurement costs by simplifying orders, reducing equipment overlap and reducing staffing needs, it also produces unintended consequences. These consequences manifest in more dangerous streets, more crashes, and ultimately, higher costs for society. It’s an unfortunate trade-off.
Who remembers the old tv show “Emergency!”? Do you remember what kind of truck the paramedics of the LAFD used? It wasn’t a giant, city-bus-sized engine careening around corners to reach every car accident. It was a 1972 Dodge D-300, basically a modified pickup not any bigger than the modern luxury ranch queens we see on city streets today. It held all the equipment necessary to do the job it was designed for, which was to respond to non-building-fire emergencies. It was more mobile, more efficient, less dangerous and, importantly, didn’t require highway-sized streets in order to operate.
But don’t we still need those big trucks and all their gear to cover every eventuality? Actually, we don’t. Even if we keep the “swiss army knife” model, there are smaller versions of the trucks we use on the market. Shorter trucks, with tighter turning radii, equipped with ladders and bins that are just as full of gear as the bigger ones. If we really wanted to shake things up we could even start looking into using other types of vehicles like vans or even motorcycles. Imagine if a fire department employee could bypass all the cars stuck at the scene of a crash by driving between them! Since speed is often as important as capability in emergencies they could pack just the necessities and go.
This is where fire response vehicles and city streets intersect: big trucks require a lot of space to travel “safely” at full speed to reach their destinations. When the decision was made decades ago to consolidate vehicles and switch to larger trucks, we also assumed that larger streets could always be built to accommodate the larger vehicles. This assumption increases upfront costs to the city as streets are built wider than before, requiring more labor and materials. It increases ongoing costs to maintain all that new concrete in perpetuity. Additionally, when streets are upsized to fit our giant fire trucks, there are unfortunate effects on traffic patterns. Numerous studies have shown that as street size increases, speeds go up, crashes increase, noise increases and walkability suffers due to city streets acting more like highways and less like places of residence, commerce or service.
This is why we need to be very careful about choosing our next fire chief. We need a chief who is on board with reforming our streets. Only 3.5% of calls to fire stations are for fires and most of those are for “medical aid,” per the National Fire Protection Association, and most of those are related to car crashes. Crashes, as indicated previously, are more common on wide streets designed to accommodate oversized fire engines. If the new chief wants to make a real difference in the safety of Denverites and the livability of Denver then smaller streets are the way to get there.
Let’s give our city a chance, a chance to lower fatalities and injuries, a chance to save money, a chance to be a better and safer place to live. A place where our fire chief knows that the best way to keep people safe is to allow construction of streets that are safe.
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