How can I show my fire department that their operations don't or shouldn't require wide lanes?

Traffic calming projects—efforts to slow down cars by narrowing streets or introducing design elements that create friction—often meet with opposition from a seemingly unlikely source: the local fire department. The concern is with response times, which they view as a measure of their job performance and as a vital safety issue. Fire chiefs fear that if lanes are narrowed or removed, or parallel parking is added, fire trucks will not be able to maneuver as easily down residential streets to get to potential emergencies, and may find certain streets completely inaccessible because of the width and/or turning radius of the trucks.

This concern is deeply misplaced: in fact, wide streets cause much more harm than the threat of fire, because they induce drivers to speed. And your odds of being seriously injured or killed in a collision rise exponentially when hit at speeds above about 20 miles per hour. Here's a discussion by a traffic engineer of the danger posed by designing roads to allow unsafe speeds.

The fire-chief objection to narrow streets may be difficult to counter, though, because of the moral authority that these officials can hold and the fact that they speak in the name of public safety, a universal concern. Here are some resources to help you.

In the article, "How Fire Chiefs and Traffic Engineers Make Places Less Safe," Steve Mouzon cites examples and statistics you can use to show how:

  • Wide streets make cities more dangerous
  • Traffic deaths are 10 times as common as fire deaths
  • Perhaps most importantly, narrow streets actually don't pose an increased fire risk: fire deaths are higher in the U.S. than in any Western European country, despite the compact cities and narrow Medieval streets of much of Europe.

One reason for this is that European cities typically use smaller fire trucks: here's some detail on that. We could too, especially for the 70% or more of fire-truck dispatches that are actually medical calls, not fires.

Also, remember that travel speed itself does not directly translate to response time. Response time is a function of both travel speed and distance, and so it may be possible to achieve excellent fire response times even in a compact city, if your fire stations are well-located. (Accessibility is not about how fast you go, it's what you can get to.)

Here's another blueprint, this one by Chuck Marohn from 2011, for overcoming opposition to narrow streets. This one emphasizes the financial productivity of our places as well, something harmed by wide streets (which are usually stroads).

One more piece of advice for making an effective argument around these issues: frame it as actually empowering the fire chief. By asking them to take safe streets into account, you're expanding their mandate to cover all of public safety, rather than limiting their ability to do their job. Jeff Speck makes that suggestion in his book Walkable City Rules, and we published the relevant excerpt on Strong Towns—you can read it here.

“Rule 51: Rewrite the fire chief’s mandate to optimize public safety, not response times. Replace the 20-foot clear and minimum curb radii with more precise measures. Do not add or keep unwarranted signals in the name of preemption. Size new fire trucks to the community and not vice versa.”

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