Fire Safety vs. Suburban Sprawl

Fighting fire in Germany in the 17th century.

A recent piece in the Star Tribune shows how suburban and rural cities are struggling to recruit fire fighters. The piece started an interesting conversation in an email thread, and I want to share part of it.

Apparently, the traditional system set up to run fire stations is beginning to break down, particularly in cities and towns without a great deal of density. Here’s the relevant quote from Kevin Giles’ interesting article:

The “combination” strategy that cities have used for years — retaining a volunteer force of paid, on-call firefighters to supplement a minimal full-time crew managing the station — isn’t working anymore in many cities.

Reasons vary, but most often it’s that potential firefighters lead busier lives with family obligations, sports and electronics. In the metro area especially, commuting has bled many suburban cities of prospects who work miles away and spend hours on the road. Cities’ emphasis on cutting spending and taxes also has distracted residents from the life-or-death importance of firefighting.

“Society has changed,” Glaser said. “It’s not easy for people anymore to drop everything and come to the fire department for a call. It’s busier, everybody is expected to do more, and it’s getting tougher and tougher to meet all those requirements.”


I first became aware of the connection between of fire trucks and emergency vehicles when reading Duany, Plater-Zyberk and Speck’s famous book, Suburban Nation. They have a chapter that argues that streets are often made wider than they might otherwise be simply for efficiency of emergency vehicles, particularly large and long fire trucks.

And now this piece on the difficulty of running fire departments. Here are a few of the comments from writers…

Comment 1:

Some to considering intertwining: Minnistrista recently started charging $100 or so, per fire call to help cover costs. Oddly, they aren’t going to charge false alarms (which makes up a majority of their calls).

Comment 2:

In many cities and towns the fire depts keep buying larger trucks and demanding that residential streets be built like stroads to accommodate them. So they’re shooting themselves in the foot.

Comment 3:
Some time ago when that was raised I asked the fire chief how often they’d responded to an emergency in our neighborhood. Turned out it was zero in the past 25 years. Then I asked how many children had been killed or injured by cars, mostly remodeling contractors, speeding through our neighborhood’s 30′ wide streets. I knew of three injured but someone else thought it was close to ten injured. Fire chief didn’t have a clue.
Not only does road design involves a tradeoff between speed and access, everyday safety and emergency safety in dense urban areas, but in the suburbs and exurbs, where houses are spread out, fire response seems to be quite expensive.
PS: A few more links on the subject.
A Strib piece on “private fire hydrants” in the suburbs that aren’t inspected and don’t work.
A Strib piece on the difficulty of reusing old fire stations.

8 thoughts on “Fire Safety vs. Suburban Sprawl

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    This is very interesting. The street requirements for emergency vehicles are indeed pervasive: in discussing possible street narrowing in Richfield, we were told a 26′ street was unworkable, even with parking on only one side, because fire trucks must be guaranteed 20′ of clear space. And mind you, these are gridded streets, not culs de sac requiring large turnaround space. The engineer I talked to indicated 32′ might be acceptable (with parking on both sides), but even then he thought some might object. (The current standard is 36′, even though on-street parking is not heavily used in most areas.)

    I’d always wondered about those private fire hydrants and valves you see all over, from downtown to strip malls in Woodbury. I’m unsurprised that they’re not inspected.

  2. The Overhead Wire

    CNU has a whole program devoted to this issue.

    and have a paper on the issue too…

    It’s interesting because its not just firefighters having a problem getting there, it’s also the issue of being able to serve neighborhoods efficiently. I highly recommend checking out this ppt from Charlotte as well

  3. Nathanael

    This is a very important advocacy topic. The lunatic claim that “fire trucks” need gigantic streets is pretty much a red herring, but someone in the asphalt lobby has managed to convince a lot of fire departments of this lie. We have to show people the truth.

  4. Omri

    Add to this witches’ brew the large number of new exurban homes built out of wood composites, which burn far faster than solid wood.

  5. Allen

    I’m sorry, did I miss something? How does a newspaper article lacking a body of evidence, just a examples, on the claimed difficultly of finding fire fighters lead to the claim that fire protection is more expensive as density drops?

    Baytown Township, full of 3,4, 5+ acre lots, budgeted a bit over $36k for fire in 2013. The city of MPLS budgeted over $54 million. If people living more densely had a meaningful affect on the cost of providing the service, than they should at least be in the same ballpark for cost when it comes to per capita spending. Yet Baytown is spending $20.60 per resident for fire coverage in 2013. Minneapolis is spending 7 times that, $140.18.

    I understand that there are going to be other factors in what type of service is provided and what that costs ( Baytown is nearly 100% residently; MPLS has lots of industrial and commercial properties to be served. But 7 times greater? They ain’t even close to each other.

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