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.
Bill Lindeke

About Bill Lindeke

Pronouns: he/him

Bill Lindeke has writing blogging about sidewalks and cities since 2005, ever since he read Jane Jacobs. He is a lecturer in Urban Studies at the University of Minnesota Geography Department, the Cityscape columnist at Minnpost, and has written multiple books on local urban history. He was born in Minneapolis, but has spent most of his time in St Paul. Check out Twitter @BillLindeke or on Facebook.