Retired Fire Chief: Make American Firetrucks Fit City Streets, Not Vice Versa

It’s a sad irony that fire departments, while essential to public safety, are often a major obstacle to safer streets in American cities.

Side by side photos of a smaller European fire truck compared with an oversized American one. Photos: FireHouse.com
A smaller European fire truck (top) and an oversized American one (bottom). Photos: FireHouse.com

When cities try to redesign streets to reduce traffic injuries and get drivers to travel at safer speeds, the local fire department often steps in to prevent changes that it believes will hinder the movement of its enormous trucks. Fire departments prefer wide traffic lanes and street corners designed for turning trucks — exactly the sort of conditions that lead to higher rates of traffic injuries and deaths.

There are plenty of experts who argue that firetrucks should be designed to fit streets, not the other way around, but these critical voices usually come from outside the fire safety profession.

Well, that might be changing. In a post at FireChief.com, retired battalion chief Robert Avsec says there’s definitely a case to be made that American firetrucks are too large: They aren’t as maneuverable in heavy traffic, they’re expensive, and they’re inefficient for trips that aren’t fire emergencies.

The public would be better served, Avsec argues, by smaller trucks, like those used in European and Asian cities:

For many years I’ve held the opinion that European fire departments get a lot more bang for their buck from their fire apparatus. Fire apparatus used in Western Europe typically excel in these four areas.

  • They’re highly maneuverable on the narrow, winding streets.
  • There is very little wasted compartment space.
  • They have a much smaller apparatus footprint than American rigs.
  • They carry most equipment in enclosed compartments protected from the elements.

A while back I wrote about today’s generation of rapid response vehicle — the lighter, cheaper and swifter sibling of the Type I engine. Fire departments in Europe and Asia are using the RRV as a primary tool in their urban firefighting deployment strategy.

Fire departments in Tokyo and Singapore are two examples that have used different strategies to address three response challenges that are very similar to those faced by European fire departments.

One source of inertia against smaller vehicles has been the assumption that insurance companies charge property owners better rates if the local fire department uses big trucks. However, Avsec reports that the way insurance companies determine fire damage risk has changed and become more nuanced. And besides, he says, fire departments should value human life above all:

Every fire department states that their first priority is life safety. So why do fire departments continue to chase the holy grail of lower property insurance rates for their community?

  • gneiss

    It cannot be understated enough the influence that Fire Departments have on our built environment. From the fire codes that mandate building materials, size of buildings, set backs between buildings to the requirements that streets be wider to accommodate larger truck sizes and poor turning radii. The discussions that take place on these issues are often couched in terms of safety related to response times. Safer street designs with narrower streets, bike lanes and other features that slow down cars are often perceived by fire departments as impacting their response times in their over-sized trucks.

    However, response time is for every emergency, not just for fires. However, over the years building have become increasingly safer so that the percentage of fire related calls has dropped relative to medical emergency calls. In fact, many of their calls are for car related crashes, the very things that would be most impacted by creating a safer streetscape. Fire departments have not adapted well to this new paradigm and still think that every call requires a large fire truck. It’s good to finally see some people from within the industry wake up to this new reality.

  • Alexander Vucelic

    Agreed – type 1 construction solves most of these red herrings. And abything over 5 stories should be Type 1 construction. Most dense urban buildings are Type 1

  • rao

    Good luck with that. Fire departments are full of boys who will never, ever want to give up their big toys. I do wonder, though, why did such big trucks become the standard to begin with?

  • Jeffrey Baker

    Not just fire trucks but all American trucks lag behind their European equivalents.

  • Note: “It cannot be overstated…” (No matter how much one emphasises the point, one is still not overstating it.)

  • HayBro

    We should have paramedics on more maneuverable vehicles. I don’t understand why we send the cavalry in two large fire vehicles to help one person who passed out or had a heart attack. In a suburban situation, a small truck or van works fine. In a congested urban situation, a motorcycle is THE fastest way to get a paramedic to an emergency. http://photos.imageevent.com/motorbiker/newspics3/London-Ambulance-1.jpg

  • Gary Fisher

    Make it look like a Sports Car!!! And they will love it!

  • Gary Fisher

    Speed is king! Small and agile!

  • Affen_Theater

    Almost all fire department calls are for medical and other non-fire incidents. And yet the mindset of dispatching paramedics to medical incidents in huge, ultra-expensive lumbering fire trucks persists.

    Germany and many European countries use paramedics on motorcycles and other smaller vehicles … some as large as a van for such incidents: http://www.ramasuri.de/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/motorrad-brk.jpg

  • Josh

    In Austin, the paramedics use motorcycles when vehicle and pedestrian traffic is thick.

  • Alex Brideau III

    And I believe I recently heard that rapid-response vehicles (RRVs) are beginning to gain some traction in the US. A good sign.

  • aarond

    They don’t. American trucks tend to be far safer than european ones because of the longer noses. There’s a smoother ride for the driver (important when multiplied over thousands of hours of work) and more crumple zone space. American trucks are also far more fuel efficient due to better streamlining.

    There’s arguments to be made for both, but european semi trucks don’t make sense in a country the size of the US. Notice how most emergency vehicles tend to not be semi trucks.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Cul-de-Sacs Are Killing Us: Public Safety Lessons From Suburbia

|
People choose suburban neighborhoods over urban ones for myriad reasons: because they can afford it, because the schools are good, because it’s a quiet street, or crimes rates are low, or everyone walks around with baby strollers and golden retrievers, or their family is nearby. But countless other consequences stream from their decision of where […]

Fire Officials Challenge Street Safety Improvements in Virginia

|
In Virginia’s Fairfax County, advocates for livable neighborhoods have been making progress toward “context sensitive streets.” County officials have been considering narrower, urban-style streets in low-traffic residential areas rather than wide suburban-style roads, cleared of obstacles to allow for high speeds. The narrower design standards would discourage speeding and increase safety for pedestrians as well […]

What If Traffic Engineers Were Held to Safety Standards Like Carmakers?

|
It’s been a rough few days for auto makers. News broke last week that Volkswagen will be fined because the carmaker manipulated the data from its diesel vehicles to make emissions look lower, deceiving U.S. environmental regulators. And on Thursday, General Motors reached a $900 million settlement with the Justice Department for covering up a defect in its ignition switches that claimed the lives of at […]