Municipal governance, like life, is full of trade-offs. One would think that a Class 1 fire suppression rating from the Insurance Services Office would be an unalloyed blessing. After all, a Class 1 rating ranks a fire department in the top 1% in the nation, which translates directly into lower homeowners insurance rates for residents of that jurisdiction.
So, if you’re a resident of the City of Richmond, which has earned a Class 1 rating after years of effort, or of Henrico County, the first county government in North America to earn the top rating, it should be a source of pride as well as insurance savings to see the validation of your fire department’s professionalism.
“It’s a big win for the city,” spoke Richmond Fire Chief Melvin Carter to the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the city’s honor. “More than anything, this rating demonstrates reliability.”
But there is a downside. Fire chiefs in top-rated jurisdictions also tend to exercise inordinate political clout, an influence that extends to land use decisions. And fire chiefs have been enemies of the kind of compact, high-density development preferred by New Urbanists and other allies of the Smart Growth movement.
Fire chiefs like big, wide streets and rounded street corners that make it quick and easy for their firetrucks to navigate. That’s entirely understandable if your No.1 concern is fighting fires. But wide streets and rounded corners are antithetical to the principle of walkability — cars tend to drive faster, and people take longer crossing the streets, all of which subjects pedestrians to a higher risk of getting hit. This phenomenon is as true in Henrico County as it is anywhere. I well remember attending a design charette for the Tree Hill real estate development and hearing the frustration of the planners at the unwillingness of the Henrico fire chief to compromise on street widths.
That’s no abstract concern. National pedestrian deaths increased 27% from 2007 to 2017 — to 5,984, according to the Governors Highway Safety Administration. By comparison, Americans who died in fires in 2015 numbered 2,560, according to the National Fire Protection Association. In other words, pedestrian deaths outnumbered fire fatalities by more than 2 to 1.
Ironically, thanks to building codes influenced by fire chiefs, newly constructed houses are far more fire resistant than old houses. They use better materials, they have smoke alarms, and many come with sprinklers. If fires do ignite, they are slower to spread and do less damage. Fire departments don’t need the huge, street-hogging monster rigs to put out the flames. Pedestrian safety may well be a more pressing threat to public safety. Fire chiefs should not be given veto power over community design.There are currently no comments highlighted.