CNU and firefighters work for fire code change
Just over a year after the Congress for the New Urbanism launched the Emergency Response & Street Design Initiative, the project is poised to change minds and national fire codes.
The Initiative, which is funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, found common ground between New Urbanism and the fire service: the recognition that strengthened street connectivity improves emergency response times and overall health and safety of community residents. Now a pair of amendments to the International Fire Code proposed by Initiative team members is up for approval from the International Code Council (ICC) this fall. CNU and its fire service partners submitted the following amendments to the ICC just before CNU’s June Congress in Denver:
• New language developed by Carl Wren, chief engineer for the Austin Fire Department in Texas, and Rick Merck, senior fire protection engineer for Montgomery County Fire & Rescue in Maryland, for Section 503 of the International Fire Code would grant fire code officials flexibility in interpreting the code’s current mandate that roads potentially accessed by fire equipment have at least 20 feet of unobstructed space.
• A new performance-based appendix — authored by Patrick Siegman, a principal at Nelson\Nygaard Consulting in San Francisco, and Peter Swift, president of Swift & Associates in Longmont, Colorado — would be available to local communities for adoption. If they did so, the appendix would supplant parts of the existing fire code.
These amendments will be presented before the ICC in Baltimore in hearings tentatively scheduled for between October 24 and October 31. Updates will be posted at the initiative’s web page, www.cnu.org/emergencyresponse, as they become available.
CNU got early positive feedback from Denver-area and Colorado fire marshals during CNU 17 in Denver in mid-June. “It was very worthwhile for me,” said Bill Harding, fire marshal for the Basalt Rural Fire Protection District based in Carbondale, west of the Denver metropolitan area, where spillover development from Aspen is a growing problem. “It was definitely good. I think it was a good start on a lot of different things and on bringing consensus on a very important issue.”
The code development project arose from a two-day workshop in April 2008, just before CNU XVI in Austin, and progressed at a workshop at CNU’s November 2008 Transportation Summit in Charlotte, North Carolina.
CNU also issued a new Report on Emergency Response & Street Design that lays out the case for traditional streets in connected networks. In addition to incorporating findings from earlier work and case studies by the Local Government Commission of Harbor Town in Memphis, the redevelopment of Hercules, California, and High Point in Seattle (made possible by a previous EPA grant), the publication showcases Peter Swift’s Longmont study identifying street width as a determining factor in the frequency of injury accidents. It also features the City of Charlotte’s 2008 connectivity study showing that the city can safely provide fire service in its most compact neighborhoods at about one-fifth the cost of service in its most sprawling areas. (Hardcopies are available from CNU; PDF versions can be downloaded from the initiative’s web page.)
“The most fertile common ground for new urbanists and firefighters is connectivity,” CNU President and CEO John Norquist said. “Firefighters know connected street grids can save lives. New urbanists know they’re a great setting for sustainable development.”
John Freece, director of the US EPA’s Smart Growth program, agreed. “This work represents real progress in eliminating one of the most critical barriers to implementing smart growth — minimum street widths,” he said. “With adoption, these codes would give communities more flexibility in how and where they grow — and enhance safety and environmental protection at the same time.”