Mad About Bike Lanes, Baltimore Fire Department Takes It Out on Advocates

Baltimore City Fire Department made a video intending to show that narrow streets cause problems for their trucks and ladders. But it ended up demonstrating the opposite. Image via YouTube
Baltimore City Fire Department made a video intending to show that narrow streets cause problems for their trucks and ladders. But it ended up demonstrating the opposite. Image via YouTube

Disagreements between bike advocates and fire departments pop up all the time in American cities. But what’s happening in Baltimore right now is not normal.

Local bike advocates say they’ve been personally targeted for harassment and intimidation by fire department employees and even the Baltimore City Fire Department itself, which has been campaigning against the addition of bike lanes.

At issue are street redesigns that have narrowed the right-of-way for motor vehicles, which BCFD says violate the requirement for 20 feet of clearance in the city’s fire code. Residents of Potomac Street cited the fire code in a bid to remove a protected bike lane on their street.

A lawsuit by Bikemore, the local bike advocacy group, halted the city’s plans to remove the bike lane, arguing that the fire code should be interpreted more flexibly.

Two months ago, members of BCFD started lashing out. At a public meeting on bike lanes on May 14, several witnesses reported that a white off-duty firefighter, Charles Mudra, lifted Austin Davis, a black city planner (also attending in an unofficial capacity) up by his neck.

Bikemore Executive Director Liz Cornish told the local news site Baltimore Fishbowl that Mudra should be released by the fire department. He’s currently facing assault charges.

At a July 3 City Council hearing, Alyssa Domzal testified that a man driving a pickup truck with a Baltimore City Fire Department decal swerved at her as she was biking and shouted, “I still hate you.” Cornish says the Fire Department has not made any effort to investigate the incident.

BCFD recently filmed a bizarre nine-minute video to argue that bike lanes are incompatible with fire trucks. But it appears to have backfired. The trucks in the video clearly have enough room to travel on the streets with protected bike lanes.

Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young told the Baltimore Sun that “I’m glad I saw the video because it showed me those trucks can get to those fires.”

Strangely, part of the video was filmed right across from Cornish’s home and Davis’s home. The two happen to be neighbors. Cornish told the City Council that she doesn’t think the location was chosen by chance:

At 3:00 p.m., I was walking home from my office. As I approached my block, I noticed a BCFD tiller truck parked in the travel lane in front of my house, surrounded by around eight BCFD employees, including many senior ranking staff based on their uniforms. My initial assumption was there was some kind of emergency on my block, but as I got closer I recognized that the fire department was filming a video. Given the history of aggression and bullying over the past year, BCFD leadership showing up on my block to film a video implying they can’t fight a fire there didn’t just feel like a double down on fear mongering, it also felt like a personal message to me and to my neighbor Austin Davis — a threat.  

Fire Department officials denied singling out Cornish.

The City Council is considering a resolution to strike the “clear width rule” from the city’s code and replace it with more flexible guidance from the National Association of City Transportation Officials, but did not pass it yesterday. It will be taken up again on August 5.

  • Ian Turner

    Amazingly antidemocratic. Do we have any insight on why firefighters are so emotionally involved in this? Loss of parking or something?

  • JR

    Bike lanes are a problem for fire truck access, but those parking lanes aren’t a problem? Haven’t watched the video, but the preview suggests that eliminating parking on the street might go a long way towards improving these so-called access problems. I doubt we’ll see that…

  • gb52

    Bus lanes and transit lanes are all great buffer zones and can be made such that they provide BETTER access for emergency responders. Call it a Transit/Emergency lane and fire trucks can get past gridlocked traffic. The same can be said about a wide bike lane, Protected bike lanes can have access points or mountable curbs for fire trucks, but again as video and image after image show, PARKING lanes and double parked cars and trucks tend to have the greatest detriments to response times.

    People are fighting the realization that parking on the streets is not free. There is a cost, and it comes in the form of increased congestion and travel time because street space is dominated by parked cars instead of moving PEOPLE. (And as always we need to realize well planned bike and transit routes and lanes can move PEOPLE more efficiently than single occupancy vehicles. (And no, we do not need to have buses in gridlock to still have it be a more efficient use of street space)

  • William Lawson

    This is not that unlike the way NYPD and FDNY members often stalk and troll pro-bike and/or anti-placard abuse campaigners on Twitter.

  • Flatlander

    I think it’s really just that firefighters are jocks who live in the suburbs and drive big trucks. They’re scornful of cities and urban things, even/especially the ones where they work, and they see an opportunity to use their position and prestige with the general public to further their agenda.

  • Tooscrapps

    A properly wide 2-way PBL can easily fit an ambulance. I’ve seen it happen on Dearborn in Chicago, and that’s a pretty narrow one.

  • Hilda

    The U.S. has steadfastly held onto the “Bigger is Better” motto for all things driven. Fire engines and trucks, just like buses and vehicles, can be smaller. The dimensions of SUVs vs. smaller cars parked for free on city streets narrows the width of streets and impacts turning radius of emergency vehicles just as much if not more than bike infrastructure. We are just inured to the idea that we have to have the biggest vehicle, no matter what the cost.

  • 1ifbyrain2ifbytrain

    don’t forget the steroids.

  • KJ

    The fire truck in the video is absurdly long! I am in California and have never seen anything like that, even in the suburbs, where they are maybe 2/3 that size.

  • Having been a resident of Baltimore, I know many of its older streets and alleys are delightfully narrow and European-esque – and also fail to meet BCFD’s 20′ clearance requirement. According to BCFD’s logic, it seems these older streets will need to be widened, and adjacent historic row homes bulldozed to accommodate fire trucks that will fight fires at these historic row homes (which will no longer exist because of wider roads).

  • This is so, so weird. Thanks for the ongoing coverage.

  • Bernard Finucane

    This deserves more attention. I’d be curious to see some examples.

  • Bernard Finucane

    This is why cities should give preferential treatment to employees that live inside the city limits.

  • Bernard Finucane

    It’s a ladder truck for tall buildings, which means it will never be used in the street where the movie starts.

  • Bernard Finucane

    The fire department stupidly bought trucks that are too big for the city they are supposed to protect.

  • William Lawson

    Just take part in any anti-traffic, pro-bike, pro-bike-lane, anti-placard-corruption activism or discussions on Twitter. You’ll encounter them (and their many burner accounts).

  • Lauren Bertrand

    All of them have a man cave. Most of them have a decal of Calvin peeing on some German/Japanese car logo. They pay for their wives to get breast enhancement surgery. They listen to lots of Ted Nugent as well, and they tell their sons “Don’t be a queer!” if they’d rather play soccer than (U.S.) football.

  • John Smith 1882

    Holy sh-t, firefighter are supposed to be seen as heros who have nerves of steel and can withstand anything.

    Between stories of how recruits, especially female recruits, have been treated, early years of racism, and now crap like this, I question how much difference i should give fire fighters in general.

    Also, BCFD, they do make smaller fire trucks, Europe has them, and san Francisco has a few. And ya know what, they fight the same fires and deal with tall buildings just like you.

  • John Smith 1882

    Damn. I’ve been missing out. I’ve been anti placard for decades, and have made comments here and there, but never on Twitter. I’ll check it out.

  • spookiness

    Apparatus. They *love* that word. The bigger and more the better. Seriously though, in many places the political weight of fire departments is a force to be dealt with. Smaller town volunteer forces even moreso. I know of municipalities that have zoning ordinance bans on speed humps, tables, etc. that were enacted due to FD & EMS lobbying.

  • Flatlander

    I mean, I wouldn’t go that far. I just think there’s a massive cultural gulf between most firefighters and most people who live in cities and bicycle regularly.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    Maybe we should start getting rid of them in the same way that our cities are effectively eliminating their police departments: a gradual death by 1,000 cuts.

  • Richard

    Baltimore has a history of buying fire equipment that is incompatible with the city. The great fire of 1904 saw the city burned when it was discovered that the fire hoses the city had did not fit the fire hydrants.

  • joeaverage21

    Why would bike lanes be a problem? Most bike lanes I’ve seen are merely painted lines on the asphalt. Just drive on them while responding to emergencies. Now parked vehicles blocking access – that is indeed a problem but if the emergency is serious enough, hook a chain on a vehicle and drag it out of the way. Those trucks are capable of doing that without damage.

  • Frank Kotter

    ‘effectively eliminating their police departments’. I would love to find out more about this if you have it.

  • Firefighters and police officers will tell you that a huge proportion of their calls are in response to …wait for it… motor vehicle incidents.

  • William Lawson

    @placardabuse – you’ll love it.

  • David Henri

    Agreed, the trucks don’t have to be so huge. They do make smaller ones.

  • Lauren Bertrand

    Sure. It probably won’t fit most people’s definition of elimination, but that’s why I likened it to “death by 1,000 cuts”.

    https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=96570&page=1

  • Bob P

    A little surprised at the need to mention the skin color of the firefighter/planner. Focus on the issue at hand… no need to force a narrative

  • LimestoneKid

    You just don’t get it, do you?

  • Frank Kotter

    Wow. Thanks for this. My antenna are now out. In my local paper I just saw that patrols are being cut back to to officer shortage.

  • jcwconsult

    Fire departments and other emergency vehicles depend on the unrestricted access to travel to emergencies in the shortest possible time to save lives. Restricting that free access means more people whose injuries will become more severe by the delays, or will become fatal for those delays.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • burnabybob

    Please provide evidence that narrowing a road according to federal guidelines has ever resulted in emergency vehicles not being able to reach people who need help.

    There’s plenty of evidence showing that wider lanes actually contribute to car crashes by encouraging speeding: https://www.citylab.com/design/2014/10/why-12-foot-traffic-lanes-are-disastrous-for-safety-and-must-be-replaced-now/381117/

  • dudestir127

    Doesn’t more people on bicycles mean less people in cars? And doesn’t less people in cars mean less cars on the road in the way of firetrucks?

  • jcwconsult

    The local Fire Department is objecting to the restrictions, and they are the experts locally. Discounting their needs is quite foolish.
    James C. Walker, National Motorists Association

  • MWaring

    So the one in the video is know as a “tiller” or Tractor drawn aerial. They are more maneuverable than the typical fixed body ladder trucks you see around the US. There is a driver in the rear (called the “tillerman”) that controls the rear axle and can steer independent of the driver.

    In this video, the tillerman is not using the truck to its full advantage… clearly part of the propaganda of this video. these things are big but they are very maneuverable and that’s exactly why Baltimore has a bunch of them for their small row-house streets. Just google “Tiller tight turn” videos and see for yourself.

    https://imgur.com/gallery/h3OPq8q

  • samwiseG

    So firefighter’s are against bike lanes because the planners are black? Mkay…

  • Paul B

    And yet no mention of race when discussing the interaction with Alyssa Domzal. This issue is FF’s against bike lanes, I fail to see how it would be racially motivated. The individual FF that assaulted the planner could be racist, but I fail to see how this relates to the subject of the article.

  • Michelle Pasternack

    I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a high rise with complete streets

  • AMH

    If I learned anything from that video, it’s that BCFD trucks are insanely huge!

  • enginist

    A Tower Ladder, which is essential to a city’s high-rise firefighting operations, needs room to maneuver. A aerial ladder truck will usually prefer setting up on a corner, so it will have access to two sides of a building. We didn’t see that here. But this was a good drill. If it had been the real thing, with people hanging out the windows, they could have made some rescues, although the angle of the ladder was pretty steep. Yes, the trucks are big, but they put a lot of water on a fire, and they can pluck people from the windows of the eighth or ninth floor of a burning building. Sorry, but when it comes to saving lives, bikes should simply stay of of the way.

  • enginist

    Firefighters have nothing against bicycles. Many of them are fitness buffs who ride their bikes to work in all kinds of weather.

  • @samwiseG unfortunately you are simplifying the narrative too much. The fact is that Mudra is able to get away with not bring charged for assault due to in part by his skin color. Reverse the roles, and there are unfortunately infinite examples where a person of color has been excessively punished for an assault crime that a white person would be dismissed from.

  • Stephen Simac

    also heart attacks from sedentary lifestyles, mental illness from societal disintegration, asthma attacks from air pollution, etc.. Fires have decreased because of better construction codes, so to justify their budgets firefighters needed to become paramedics, However they still roll out their firetrucks for many of these medical responses.

  • Stephen Simac

    It’s obvious that the cars (FUV”s actually) parked on the streets are the main obstructions. Tell me that fire truck wouldn’t just drive right over those plastic pinions “protecting” that bike lane, because that’s what the black SUV must have done to park there.

  • KN D

    It’s the outriggers that allow the aerial ladder to be deployed to the window at which somebody is awaiting rescue. The new traffic pattern makes the deployment of the outriggers nearly impossible. Expecting there to be an open space exactly where the truck needs to be parked to affect a rescue is not wise. There are several other operational considerations that are impacted by the new traffic pattern.

  • Chel21

    So they should get rid $750,000 trucks n buy new ones for bike lanes…17 trucks

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG