Which is a Greater Public Safety Issue: Fires or Pedestrian Fatalities?

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.

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8 responses to “Which is a Greater Public Safety Issue: Fires or Pedestrian Fatalities?

  1. It’s not like Compact fire trucks don’t exist:

    and few pedestrians are killed by fire trucks nor do they die in and around denser developments so it’s not really that kind of issue.

    It’s about street designs that lack sidewalks and lack safe zones for people and lack designs to discourage higher speeds where there are both vehicles and pedestrians.

    It’s our car culture that is the problem – and officials who do not take pedestrian safety seriously enough as there are all kinds of street designs from roundabouts to speed bumps to traffic calming to slow people down.

    Even in the Walmarts – you can see the issue. Even the people who need to go to the front door of Walmart – once they are back in their own cars – they terrorize others …. unless Walmart itself takes steps (pun intended) to keep people from their own bad practices that threaten others.

    We just need to do these things because unfortunately a lot of folks don’t give a rip even if a lot of others do – so you have to deal with the ignorati to force them to behave. Some folks are a menace to others.. and they don’t respond to common sense… hell.. EVERY DAY – I watch people endanger others because they simply are unable to leave their cell phone alone while they drive.

  2. Easy question. That truck is of limited utility, Larry. Richmond needs at least some large ladder trucks, and Henrico has some tall structures. We’re not going to leave the people above the fourth floor at risk because somebody wants a shorter walk across the street. So the streets need to accommodate the long ladders. You want a small town life? Live in a small town.

  3. Re: “You want a small town life? Live in a small town.”

    That’s BS, Steve. There are two jurisdictions spotlighted in Jim’s post and one of them is the City of Richmond. Don’t tell me the Fan District meets Henrico County new-development zoning requirements for street and alley widths and turning radii! When he says that “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” he’s not talking about retrofitting Church Hill streets and alleys to make way for the big fire trucks.

    So, the urban lifestyle CAN be given Class 1 rated fire protection; the City proves that. Why, then, do the bureaucrats in Henrico insist on precluding high-density and walkable-friendly new-urban development? Is it really about fire trucks, or rather an obsolete mentality in the zoning office, a fondness for the old suburbs of Levittown Living, aided and abetted and excused before the Supervisors by the fire chief’s preferences? Let me tell you, those preferences would never fly in Arlington County.

  4. Well Steve – you need both kinds of fire trucks and since fire stations are sited by neighborhoods and districts – you can have your big ladder trucks where they are needed and your more compact units where they are needed.

    It’s not an either/or proposition.

    I don’t think fire chiefs are the ones that prevent urban density. They might be given as an excuse but as Acbar points out – it’s a planning issue Fire services adapt to the settlement pattern – not the other way around.

    I don’t think people should be coerced into dense living patterns either. If they want the Henrico suburbs… so be it but street designs that don’t properly accommodate safe pedestrian use – and people who drive too fast and do not consider the safety of people on first – need a swift kick in the rear end.

    People’s worst instincts are on full display when they are in their vehicles – it’s like they never grew up

  5. As part of the review process, the local fire marshal checks out emergency vehicle access to both buildings and proposed streets. I’ve seen applications that had to be changed due to fire marshal concerns. If Fairfax and Arlington do this, I suspect the rest of them do as well. It’s simple engineering.

    One of the things that has to addressed for road size is the amount of through traffic. Some of the urbanists have strongly criticized the fact that both Routes 7 and 123 are not only kept at their existing width, but have been widened due to the amount of through traffic traversing them – well more than 33%. The plain and simple is that given its location near major roads, Routes 7 & 123, the Dulles Toll and Airport roads and the Beltway, Tysons was not a good candidate for urbanization except for the fact that well-placed landowners wanted the density to make hundreds and hundreds of millions. But as that train has left the station, we can only make the best Tysons that we can, while hoping to protect its neighbors from the massive increases in traffic that are coming from the walkable, mixed use community served by transit.

  6. Your last paragraph is one of the most misinformed about fire in homes today that I’ve read anywhere. The exact opposite is true. Single family homes today are more likely to spread from house to house because of less separation demanded by developers and combustible outside walls. It is not uncommon to see multiple homes on fire when firefighters arrived in a new development.

    Please explain how newer homes are more fire resistant. The use of lightweight construction instead of dimensional lumber means structural collapse will happen much earlier. Those who study fires tell me the homes, once they catch fire, burn hotter and are generally less safe than homes built with pre-1980 construction techniques.

    Sprinklers are phenomenal, but home builders have fought the requirement throughout the country and have tried to get the relatively small number of jurisdictions that require sprinklers in new home construction to change their laws. I’d bet that fire chiefs might be more open to some of the modifications you would like if sprinklers were required in all new single family homes and retrofitting all multi-family homes. See if you can make that happen.

    And yes, there are low profile fire engines. Some departments going to that as they replace apparatus. It’s a trend I like. But that is not the current state of the fleet and won’t be (and you will still need apparatus that won’t meet that standard). So, if it’s your family trapped you are okay with the fire engine having to take the time to back up at turns at narrow streets? Or see if you can get the developers to buy all new fire apparatus.

    • Dave, You raise valid points. That’s why I described the fire-pedestrian conflict as a trade-off, not as a black-and-white issue. But I don’t see you acknowledging that pedestrian safety is a valid concern as well.

  7. Sorry. Pedestrian safety is enormously important. I knew the answer to your question immediately. It’s something I told my kid growing up. He was worried about all these other things occurring (house being broken into, etc) and I pointed your biggest danger may be just crossing the street.

    One thing we both forgot in this discussion is that fire apparatus will not just be responding on those streets for house fires. It’s for all kinds of life threatening emergencies. So, to be faithful in your stat comparison, I think you would have to add in deaths by heart attacks, strokes, car crashes and and other trauma to the deaths in fires number. The fire engines in most communities will be responding with the ambulance to most anything life threatening, including pedestrians struck.

    But even with the pedestrian number being much less than that total, there should be a way to have navigable streets for fire apparatus that are safe for pedestrians. I will chat with some of my fire marshal friends about it.

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