CNU fire code proposals shot down; appeal filed

ICC voters choose confrontation over cooperation in street design discussion

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NEW: The Congress for the New Urbanism has filed an appeal, asking the ICC to overturn the approval of "F17." CNU will post updates as the appeals process moves along.

The Emergency Response & Street Design Initiative suffered a setback on May 20 when both of its suggested amendments to the International Fire Code were rejected at the International Code Council’s Final Action Hearings in Dallas.

ICC voters ratified the Fire Code Committee’s previous rejection (in October 2009) of the Congress for the New Urbanism’s proposed change to Section 503 of the fire code – the passage that currently mandates designated fire access roads have at least 20 feet of clear space. This requirement can be a factor contributing to wider streets that signal to drivers to travel at faster speeds. CNU and its partners in the Fire Service drafted language that, had been accepted, would have affirmed that fire code officials have the flexibility to approve streets with less than 20 feet of clear space, depending on factors such as turning radii, connectivity, traffic safety, and the presence of sprinkler systems.

Voters also reversed the Fire Code Committee’s previous overwhelming approval (12-1 at the October 2009 code hearings in Baltimore) of our proposed Appendix K, which offered performance-based guidance to fire code officials on street designs and “… establish[es] requirements consistent with nationally and internationally recognized good practice for achieving a reasonable level of overall life safety, by taking into account and balancing the need to prevent road traffic deaths and injuries and the need to safeguard against the hazards of fire, explosions and other dangerous conditions.”

Perhaps more disturbing, however, was the ICC’s ratification of Fire Code language that states, “Traffic calming devices are prohibited unless approved by the fire code official,” and defines traffic calming devices as “…design elements of fire apparatus access roads such as street alignment, installation of barriers, and other physical measures intended to reduce traffic and cut-through volumes, and slow vehicle speeds.”

In other words, the ICC has elevated fire code officials to be the ultimate arbiters of street design and traffic engineering. This undermines efforts to seek cooperative dialog on street design matters, and drew a swift response from CNU President and CEO John Norquist: “The Fire Committee of the ICC decided to disrespect engineers, planners and other design professionals. This arrogant action damages the creditability of the whole ICC. Groups like CNU, American Society of Civil Engineers, Urban Land Institute, American Institute of Architects, and Institute of Transportation Engineers will now need to build coalitions with other groups like the National Association of Home Builders to get legislatures to reconsider their states' use of the International Fire Code.”

CNU’s proposals acknowledged that solid common ground exists for ongoing efforts to reconcile narrower streets and good emergency access: Street connectivity — specifically well-connected networks of traditional street grids — is essential to good urbanism, shortens emergency response times, and improves overall community life safety. Taken together, these changes would have made the fire code less focused on mandating wide streets, and more flexible in allowing cities to take advantage of the safety and response benefits of connected networks of walkable narrower streets.

Opposition to CNU’s proposals focused on the perceived absolute need for 20 feet clear to allow fire engines to pass one another or other vehicles en route to an emergency, and to have enough maneuvering room once on scene; on concerns that permissive language, once in the code, would be used to force fire marshals to approve narrower streets; and on the ever-growing size of fire apparatus.

Daniel E. Nichols, of the New York State Division of Code Enforcement and Administration, charged that in addition to the above reasons, CNU’s proposed code changes really aimed to save developers money on their projects: “At the end of the day, decreasing road widths decreases the cost of projects, and that’s what this is about.”

Others, however, agreed that CNU’s proposed code changes pointed the way toward greater cooperation as New Urbanism gains in popularity.

“I think that in today’s world, the idea of a 20-foot-wide strip of concrete with two stripes down the middle, going through an urban neighborhood, is a lost cause,” said Jim Tidwell, a former fire marshal in Fort Worth, Texas, and a member of that city’s plan commission.

Once the ICC's Final Action Hearings are completed later this year, approved code changes and additions will take effect with the 2012 editions of ICC codes. (Those editions will be published in 2011.)

CNU’s proposals were developed jointly with fire marshals participating in the Emergency Response & Street Design Initiative, including Carl Wren, of the Austin, Texas, Fire Department, and Rick Merck, of Montgomery County (Md.) Fire & Rescue, and fire code consultants Rolland Crawford and Page Dougherty. CNU was represented in Dallas by Carl Wren, Jon Davis, project manager for the Emergency Response & Street Design Initiative, and Patrick Siegman, a transportation planner with Nelson\Nygaard, of San Francisco, who co-authored the proposed Appendix K. Danielle Arigoni spoke on behalf of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Smart Growth office, which has been CNU’s partner in the Emergency Response & Street Design Initiative.