Sometimes, when you write for a blog, you wonder if your work is making a difference. Occasionally you get a sign that it is, by following a story as it travels across the Internet. One such post was about the size of our fire trucks, Why do we have such big fire trucks for so few fires? It concluded:

In North America, fire departments drive new urban design with their criteria for curb radii, lengths and widths of streets, giant bulbs at dead ends to turn around because they are incapable of driving in reverse. So what we get is urban design by road engineers and firemen instead of planners and architects. No wonder our cities look like they do.

This was picked up by CityLab, a well-respected site followed by urban planners and designers, under the title "It’s Time to Redesign the Big Old Red Fire Truck." The article quotes MNN:

Overall, though, America is behind the curve when it comes to rethinking the fire truck. As Lloyd Alter writes at Mother Nature Network, Europe, where street lanes tend to be tighter, has a line of compact fire trucks that perform the same tasks as those in the U.S. but are far more maneuverable.

fire trucksThe tail wagging the dog? (Photo: Strong Towns)

On Strong Towns, Charles Marohn picks up the story, calling it "tail wagging the dog when it comes to fire departments mandating urban design standards " with the key takeaway and summary in his two photos:

tragic ironyA tragic irony. (Photo: Strong Towns)

Then Robert Avsec, a retired fire chief jumped in, writing in the Fire Chief website, referencing CityLab but picking up on the European designs for fire trucks:

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.

He also shows a great video comparing the two:

Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog picks up the story, reminding us that it’s important that Avsec being on the case is seriously upping the ante:

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.

And the latest is urban planner Brent Toderian, interviewed on CBC radio, referencing CityLab but picking up Marohn’s point about the contradiction in designing roads for fast fire response:

If you're just looking at one part of the safety picture — how fast you can get your fire trucks to a fire — you may inadvertently make a lot of other parts of cities unsafe because you make big wide roads for fire trucks. In doing so, you're designing your streets for people to go much faster than you want people to drive in them.

NenhiMy fuzzy photo of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

In fact, even the mayor of Calgary is jumping in on this issue; according to the CBC:

Calgary has actually made some of its roads more dangerous to pedestrians with a design that is meant to make homes safer from fire, Mayor Naheed Nenshi said Monday.

"For a long time, we have been ensuring that the roads are wide enough for the rare occasion when an emergency vehicle has to get through," the mayor said. "But we also know that those wide roads encourage speeding, leading to more fatalities."

There is no word on whether Nenshi reads MNN, but there’s little doubt he reads CityLab. Ultimately, it's just nice to know that what we write might actually be having some impact, some part in the larger discussion.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Why designing streets for fire trucks gets it backwards
A story about designing streets for fire trucks has started a wider discussion.