Expedition Log, vol. 6 – Apparatus Blues

Firefighting apparatus – the fire trucks – used across America is a contributing factor blocking safe street implementation. Luckily Europe – and America – have already solved this: the smaller fire apparatus, and more companies.

Some of the most visited places by Americans look like Disney and small European towns. There’s a whole web of rules and regulations which have been enacted over the last century which is keeping us from building this in America.

One of these forces is the firefighting apparatus, known to you and me as a firetruck or ladder.

These are amazing machines which are designed to get firefighters to the scene quickly, and then render aid – either medical attention or putting water on the fire.

As all things American, over the last century these apparatus have grown in size, often for legitimate reasons, but often because of status quo bias.

When we are trying to redesign streets away from just giving cars a place to drive, to a more equitable distribution which allows people in wheelchairs to get around, bikers, strollers, runners, and pedestrians a big blocker in this redesign in the local fire department. They are understandably worried that any shift from the status quo will increase response times, endanger life safety, and make them look bad.

This means that traffic calming measures such as narrower streets, or creating bulb-outs at the corners to slow down turning vehicles, or even creating pedestrian streets often are killed before implementation because the fire department is worried.

It doesn’t have to be this way.


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If we want to create safer streets where we all can walk our kids to school without fear, then we need to change how we purchase our fire apparatus as part of an integrated rethinking of the whole road design system.

This isn’t a new or shocking development, and isn’t just something which happens in Europe. There are plenty of places right here in America which have decided that deploying only large apparatus isn’t working, and have purchased and deployed an array of smaller and more nimble units without sacrificing safety.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) in coordination with the U.S. DOT Volpe Center has authored an amazing guide called, Optimizing Large Vehicles for Urban Environments (PDF). Please read it.

Photo by wil540

Medical, not fire calls

Nearly two-thirds (64%) of the reported calls required emergency medical services (EMS) and rescue services from fire departments. Only 4% of all reported fire department runs were fire related.

In New York City, the FDNY has deployed a Polaris and Gator EMS apparatus in Midtownwhich helps it maneuver around the heavy traffic.

Cherry Grove Fire Department

Uniform equipment

Being able to have commonality of apparatus and equipment certainly makes sense from a training and maintenance point of view. But this is shortsighted as most modern fire companies are already specializing equipment based on needs.

The Cherry Grove (NY) Mighty Mini is one of two small-format apparatus which serves the barrier island community on Fire Island.

Design bike lanes for express runs

In Europe the bike lanes not only move a lot of people on bikes, strollers, and scooters, but in an emergency situation firefighters use the bike lanes and tram lines to get around traffic. This is certainly both an operational change, and will require additional coordination with departments of transpiration, but right-sizing both the physical infrastructure and the machines which use them reduces run times.

It’s the car traffic

Finally, the problem really is that there’s too many cars in dense urban areas. As NYC is about to enact our decongestion charge, we will (hopefully) get a two for one deal: more money for transit as the tolls go to the MTA, and less traffic so people who need to drive – including the FDNY – can get to where they need to go quicker. I certainly hope both the FDNY and the DOT will be conducing before and after data studies to show that response time is either unaffected by congestion charge, or run time has been reduced.


Now, there’s also so many other details we need to go over – especially working with insurance companies, Insurance Services Office, and especially the National Fire Protection Association which publishes more than 300 consensus codes and standards, including NFPA 1901 which outlines apparatus standards.

But so much of this is inertia, as (for good reasons) the firefighting community is conservative and slow to move. I would love for someone like Bloomberg Philanthropies step in and conduct a series of evidence-based reviews and investments so we can right-size our apparatus, so we can right-size our streets.


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