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?

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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?

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

  5. 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.

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