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It’s Time to Redesign the Big Old Red Fire Truck

City streets are getting slimmer. Shouldn't emergency vehicles do the same?

Traffic winds around a fire truck in New York. (AP Photo/Peter Morgan)

Anyone who lives in a city has watched large, boxy fire trucks and fire engines—measuring 24-to-50 feet long and seven-to-nine feet wide—struggle to squeeze through traffic. It’s no wonder firefighters in places like San Francisco, where the government has been pushing to improve safety by narrowing streets, call for the wider roads. It’s a safer design, they argue, as slim lanes mean firefighters have to “drive into oncoming traffic” to reach their rescue destination.

But the problem with wider urban streets, as Jeff Speck has argued, is that they encourage faster driving and can lead to deadlier collisions. And science backs up his argument: a 2015 study of intersections in Toronto and Tokyo found that lower crash rates were linked to lanes measuring 10- to 10.5-feet wide rather than to 12-feet-wide lanes. As Scott Wiener, a member of San Francisco Board of Supervisors, wrote in 2014: “[Prioritizing] fire truck access in a way that makes streets less safe for pedestrians and other users—and which undermines neighborhood fabric with high-volume, fast-moving traffic—isn’t the right solution.”

So maybe instead of city streets, it’s the design of fire trucks and engines themselves that needs to be reconsidered. Modern firefighting vehicles are fitted to perform a wide range of tasks, of which the most important is battling major blazes. They come with pumps, hydraulic ladders, tanks that can hold roughly 400 to 500 gallons of water—enough to put out a vehicle fire—and a slew of other equipment. They also have enough space to transport up to eight firefighters (though it’s not uncommon for fire departments to send a three-person crew to the scene).

Yet fighting actual fire makes up only a small portion of what firefighters do. Of the 31.9 million calls routed to all U.S. fire departments in 2013, only 1.2 million (or about 4 percent) were fire-related, according to the latest data from the National Fire Protection Association. Most of the time they’re attending to other emergencies, including road collisions—the very ones city street designers try to prevent, as Mother Nature Network points out. Still others take on “eclectic” roles, reports The Wall Street Journal:

Elsewhere, to keep their employees busy, fire departments have expanded into neighborhood beautification, gang intervention, substitute-teaching and other downtime pursuits.

As one economist from George Mason University put it, “firefighters don’t fight fires.” That’s an exaggeration, of course. But it seems reasonable to think that, in cases without a true fire, sending those giant trucks may be less efficient than, say, sending a paramedic to the scene. Further fueling this argument are growing budget cuts to fire departments throughout the country.

Some places, like Beaufort County in South Carolina, have opted for smaller “all purpose response” vehicles. In 2010, its fire department had to replace three fire trucks, which would have cost them $1.4 million total. Instead the department ended up buying one new fire truck and replacing the other two with all-purpose cars the size of a pickup truck, paying just $675,000.

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. Watch as two fire engines—one from the U.S. and the other from Europe—drive around an obstacle of cones:

In Singapore, the country’s civil defense force recently showed off a line of radical compact fire trucks, replacing the conventional box shape with more angles and looking more like a rugged SUV than a truck. Still, it has enough space to fit five people—a medical technician and four firefighters—and a compartment for all necessary medical equipment. It also has a “completely integrated compressed air foam (CAF) pump system,” according to Gizmag.

Designed for Singapore’s urban streets and the frequency of medical emergencies as opposed to fire event, the so-called “Red Rhino” fire truck shows there’s definitely room to think outside the big old red box.

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