Emergency Response & Street Design Initiative: The Story So Far

CNU and the U.S. EPA launched the multi-year Emergency Response & Street Design Initiative in 2007 to solve this problem through better street connectivity and design, and building construction techniques like sprinklers.

On April 1-2, 2008, a Smart Growth Streets and Emergency Response Workshop was held in Austin, Texas, just before CNU XVI. Two dozen civil and traffic engineers, fire marshals, and planners spent two days educating one another and working collaboratively to find mutually acceptable street design solutions.

Among their key conclusions:

  • Mutual education is sorely needed; new urbanists and fire marshals should talk to each other early and often during a project to help ensure that terms like "traditional neighborhood development" and "transit-oriented development" are clear and specific at the project level, and appropriate to the context in which the project will be built.
  • New urbanists and fire marshals should work together to ensure they A) understand each other's priorities and responsibilities, and B) reflect those priorities and responsibilities in project designs.
  • Street connectivity should be increased to decrease Vehicle Miles Traveled and the rate of traffic fatalities per mile, and give emergency responders more flexibility for response routes. Connectivity and street networks were also hot topics at CNU’s Transportation Summit 2008 in Charlotte, N.C.
  • Projects should highlight their ability to achieve "community safety" through performance-based measures.
  • The Transect should be applied so buildings, streets, and projects don’t go where they shouldn’t be; also, the Transect could help guide fire equipment purchases, response techniques, and expectations about proximity to fire stations and resultant response times.
  • Additional research should be done to re-confirm the 1997 Swift-Painter-Goldstein study, "Residential Street Typology and Injury Accident Frequency," on a broader scale.

A smaller working group met Oct. 4, 2008, in Denver, Co., to discuss approaches to the International Fire Code and crafting language that would empower local fire code officials to allow narrower streets. Patrick Siegman, with the planning firm Nelson\Nygaard, conducted a brief review of the work done in Austin, touched on the impossibility of a “one size fits all” solution, and compared the advantages and disadvantages of both narrow and wide streets. Any code that the working group develops should be offered as an alternative to, and not a replacement of the existing code.

Peter Swift, owner of Swift & Associates, discussed urban context issues related to narrower streets, noting that this conversation really centers on suburban, general urban, and urban center areas of the typical rural-to-urban Transect, and two key distance measurements: street and building-to-building width. The chance of an injury accident increases 25 percent with every additional two feet of street width, Swift said, adding that traffic can be slowed by giving drivers a sense of good spatial enclosure.

Carl Wren, chief engineer with the Austin Fire Department, presented an overview of the complex process that must be undertaken to amend the fire code. Proposed changes must be backed up by solid, scientific data.

One month later, Initiative team members gathered again at Transportation Summit 2008. Host Danny Pleasant, director of Charlotte’s transportation department, presented the city’s Connectivity Study showing how greater connectivity leads to faster emergency response times and more efficient use of capital funding.

From those gatherings, team members developed proposed new language for Section 503 of the International Fire Code, and a new appendix to the code. These were submitted to the International Code Council on June 1, 2009.