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If You Want Safe Streets, Buy a Better Fire Engine

That lesson was brought home, once again, by the Opticos team’s work on a recent downtown plan. Our team had encountered a typical American conflict. Many community members wanted walkable streets, with wide sidewalks, protected bicycle lanes, slow-moving traffic, and ample room for trees, flowers, and sidewalk cafés. The fire department wanted wide, unobstructed swathes of asphalt.

This conflict between community members’ desire for low-speed streets, with a high level of traffic safety, and a fire department’s desire for wide, high-speed roads is frequent in the United States. But in Europe, it is rare.

If you want safe streets, you need to buy fire engines that fit on safe streets. The same goes for ladder trucks, foam tenders, HazMat rigs, and other fire department vehicles.

Europe builds safe streets because its fire vehicles fit on safe streets

In most European nations, building slender, low-speed streets is routine. That’s because European fire departments purchase fire engines and ladder trucks designed for use on these streets.

An article in Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment magazine reports, “in Europe, fire apparatus are more compact than comparable vehicles in North America”. Sam Itani, vice president of international and government sales at fire truck manufacturer E-ONE, told the magazine, “There are a lot of narrow streets in their cities, many of them one way.” Itani says, “they have to design vehicles to go into narrow, congested areas, yet still allow firefighters access to the tools and hoses on their trucks”.

Agile fire engines help explain Europe’s excellent traffic safety

The European practice of purchasing fire apparatus that fits on small, low-speed streets helps explain why European countries have much lower traffic fatality and injury rates than the United States. A 2018 report by the World Health Organization found that the traffic fatality rate in the United States is 12.4 deaths per hundred thousand population. That’s four times higher than in the United Kingdom and more than four times higher than in Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland.

By choosing more maneuverable vehicles, European fire departments improve traffic safety. According to Optimizing Large Vehicles for Urban Environments – Downsizing, a 2018 report from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, “street designs with narrower lanes, smaller turning radii, and decreased crossing distances are shown to increase street safety”. Such designs deter speeding. That matters, because speed kills. If a motorist driving at 20 mph hits a person on foot, the chance of death for the person hit is 5 percent; at 30 mph, the chance of death is 45 percent; and at 40 mph, 85 percent of walkers are killed.[1] Choosing the smallest appropriate fire vehicles, the Volpe Center concludes, makes it possible to design streets that improve safety for everyone.


[1] Limpert, Rudolph. Motor Vehicle Accident Reconstruction and Cause Analysis, Fourth Edition (Charlottesville, VA. The Michie Company, 1994), p. 663. See also Killing Speed and Saving Lives, UK Dept. of Transportation (London, England).

More than 10 traffic fatalities for every fire-related fatality

Reducing traffic fatalities is a major concern, because traffic fatalities and injuries far outnumber those that are fire-related. In 2020, traffic crashes in the United States killed 38,824 people and injured more than two million. By comparison, there were approximately 3,600 fire-related fatalities and 15,200 injuries. In short, America experiences more than 10 traffic fatalities for every fire-related fatality, and more than 100 people injured in traffic crashes for every fire-related injury.

This is why city leaders, including fire chiefs, must evaluate how fire vehicle purchasing practices affect overall life safety, including both fire safety and traffic safety.

Can American cities achieve Europe’s high levels of traffic safety?

In recent years, many American cities have adopted Vision Zero policies, which aim to reduce traffic fatalities to zero. But can they achieve the high levels of traffic safety seen in Europe? To do so, it seems certain that many of them will need to buy some new fire apparatus.

According to the Volpe Center’s researchers, that can be done without compromising fire safety. They conclude that the “smaller, more maneuverable emergency response trucks” commonly used in Europe and Asia “often have similar, or better, capabilities than the most common trucks on the streets in U.S. cities today”. They explain:

Aerial ladder fire trucks used in major European and Asian cities can reach just as high, despite being only two-thirds as long and having only half of the turn radius as common American models. Some models of pumper fire trucks are up to 30% smaller, and have a turn radius up to 50% less than more typically procured models.

These vehicles, the researchers find, let cities “deploy a wider array of traffic calming techniques in more places”, reducing “the likelihood of speeding and other reckless driving by all drivers”.

Fire engines that work well on safe streets

What are the differences that make European fire vehicles more agile, without compromising fire safety? Consider the most common fire department vehicle: a fire engine (a.k.a. “pumper”). Fire engines typically include three key parts: a water tank, hoses, and a pump to deliver water from the tank to the hoses.

When purchasing a fire engine, one crucial choice is the location of the pump. In a 2019 article in Firehouse Magazine, Jeff Van Meter, product strategy manager at Hale Products, a Florida pump-maker, explains that “rear-mount pumps are the standard throughout most of the world”. “Apparatus with rear-mount pumps tend to be more compact and have shorter wheelbases”, he says (Figure 1). That makes rear-mount pumpers more agile, able to maneuver around sharp turns.

Placing the pump at the rear of the vehicle also makes it easier to hook up hoses when working on a slender street. On streets with just 10 feet of clear width between parked cars (a typical standard for low-speed streets with a high level of traffic safety (Figure 1), firefighters can use the space behind the engine to connect hoses (Figure 2).

By contrast, most American fire departments use side-mount (a.k.a. “mid-mount” or “mid-ship”) pumpers (Figure 3). Firefighters on an engine with a side-mount pump need room to work alongside the engine to connect hoses. The hoses stiffen as they are charged with water, taking up substantial width (Figure 4). Firefighters understandably then want more street width, so they can get around the hoses. Choosing side-mount pumpers often leads to calls for wider streets.

European street design manuals, such as the United Kingdom’s Manual for Streets, typically require a minimum carriageway width of 2.75 to 3.0 meters (9.0 to 9.8 feet) on low-volume streets. European firefighters, equipped with rear-mount pumpers, can work effectively on these streets.

By contrast, one American model fire code (the International Fire Code, which is generally not used outside of the United States) demands that a road with a minimum unobstructed width of 20 feet, at every point along its length, be provided from every new building project to a firehouse. An optional appendix (Appendix D) sets even more stringent requirements. If a city adopts this appendix, then two fire roads, each with a minimum unobstructed width of 26 feet, must be provided to buildings “where the vertical distance between the grade plane and the highest roof surface exceeds 30 feet”.

The International Fire Code (IFC), which has been adopted into law by numerous U.S. cities and states, does give local fire officials the authority to approve exceptions to these rules. Understandably, though, American fire departments equipped with space-intensive side-mount pumpers usually insist on 20 or even 26 feet of clear width, even on low-traffic streets. To accommodate long-wheelbase fire engines with poor turning radii, American fire officials also frequently demand large intersections, with large curb radii.

The unfortunate (and unintended) result is often speeding, high crash rates, and more traffic deaths.

Several American cities are now purchasing more agile fire vehicles

Several major American cities have made a concerted effort to buy more maneuverable fire vehicles. In 2017, the National Association of City Transportation Officials and the Volpe Center convened the Vision Zero Vehicle Safety Technology Working Group. The working group, whose member cities include Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington DC, identified best practices for buying better vehicles. The Optimizing Large Vehicles for Urban Environments report, described above, is one product of that collaboration.

San Francisco’s latest fire engines offer a more concrete example of the changes that have resulted from these cities’ focus on ending traffic deaths. In 2015, an analysis commissioned by the city’s Board Of Supervisors had found that the fire department’s Apparatus and Vehicle Replacement Plan lacked “policies to design and purchase fire engines and trucks to accommodate traffic calming and pedestrian safety improvements or maneuver on the city’s narrow streets”. In response, San Francisco’s Fire Commission adopted a Vision Zero Resolution, which commits the fire department to working with vehicle makers to develop apparatus that accommodates safer street designs.

San Francisco’s new “triple combination pumpers”, made by Ferrara Fire Apparatus, are one result (Figure 5). Even though they maintain the side-mount pump design that the fire department is used to, and the same 1500 gallon per minute pumping capacity, the vehicles are significantly more maneuverable. Thanks to a shorter wheelbase, their turning radius is 24% smaller (25 feet, rather than 33 feet). That lets them navigate traffic calming measures, such as curb extensions at crosswalks, without encroaching into an opposing lane of traffic.

Recessed hose fittings and valves, roll-up doors on equipment compartments, and a body two inches narrower also make it easier to operate on the city’s many narrow streets. As these new engines replace worn-out vehicles, firefighters are finding it easier to respond to calls and San Francisco’s traffic engineers are gaining greater freedom to implement life-saving street designs.

Elsewhere in America, sales of rear-mount pumpers appear to be growing. Places as varied as Anaheim (CA), Hannibal (MO), Taos County (NM), and Delmar (NY) have all chosen rear-mount pumpers, citing a variety of reasons: greater storage space, more maneuverability, and a better fit for slender city streets and narrow rural roads.

For cities across America, the lessons seem clear. Slender, low-speed streets increase traffic safety. Fire departments need vehicles that work well on these streets. Two steps are key for making this happen. Elected officials should adopt formal policies directing fire departments to purchase vehicles that accommodate slender streets, traffic calming measures, and other traffic safety improvements. Then, fire departments need to buy them.

Over time, as agile new fire engines and ladder trucks roll out, the payoff will be faster emergency response times, fewer traffic fatalities, and safer, more livable cities.