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Gavin Newman
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Gavin Newman

The Thin Red Line

Think about an ordinary residential street. In Dallas, it’s wide enough for cars to park on one side and two others to drive past, and it probably has sidewalks on each side of the street. If you’re lucky, you might get the pleasant experience of having some trees along that street and maybe a bike lane.

However, each residential street exists in dual states. In one state it is the means by which we go to work, we go for a walk, and the corridor in which we might meet our neighbors; in its second state, in crisis, an ambulance speeds to the sick or injured, or a firetruck deals with a nightmare situation. Ultimately, these residential streets create a network of infrastructure to allow for public safety in the event of crisis.

In many Dallas neighborhoods built in the early 20th century, gridded streets and blocks were the de facto position in urban development. Then the story of 20th century urbanism was to do everything we could to avoid grids and blocks. For many places developed post-World War II, a city street cannot serve well during an emergency. For these occurrences, we have fire lanes, better known in our building codes as “fire apparatus access roads.”

Allow me to project for a moment: I don’t have much affection for fire lanes. I imagine you might not either. They eat up valuable land (that isn’t getting any cheaper), they get wider every time I turn around, they lay down concrete where we want a field of green, and who doesn’t like a shock of red striping running through the middle of their site? Given the choice, who’d pick this?

Fire lanes are not supported by theory, either in origin or in their current requirements. Rather, they respond to a particular history of decisions to increase safety for our first responders (and general public?). In this history, things burn. Until the 20th century, cities often burned, with the blazes becoming known as “The Great Fire of ______.” (If you’d like to read up on the history of urban fires in America, Peter Charles Hoffer’s book Seven Fires: The Urban Fires That Reshaped America is a fantastic resource.)

And out of each fire came progress that slowed the next great fire: London burns, and the next London is built of brick.

Of particular interest in the tools of firefighting: the fire engine, replacing the bucket brigade that moved water onto a fire. For the purpose of fighting a blaze, the fire engine is a mobile pump. Pumps have existed since antiquity; the modern fire engine emerged after the invention of the brass and leather fire hose in 1672. With this means of dispensing water, the Dutch-English inventor John Loftin patented the “fire sucking worm,” the first mobile fire pump with sufficient pressure and throw to fight fires.

These early firetrucks were drawn by men. Some firsts are hard to pin down, but in an attempt to present some chronology I’ll offer the following: In 1832, volunteers of the New York Mutual Hook and Ladder Company No. 1 bought a horse to pull their fire engine; horses remained in service after the 1841 emergence of the steam-powered pump, far more effective and far heavier than the previous generation of manual pumps. Detroit saw the first use of a gasoline-powered tractor in 1922, ushering in the retirement of horse-drawn pumps.

Anecdotes fill the history of firefighting. When the first horse-drawn engines replaced man-drawn engines, one group of pump-moving men, fearful of being replaced, sought to shame neighboring firefighters by painting their horses and shaving the animals’ manes and tails. Horses were only accepted into wider use with the advent of the heavier steam pump. When Detroit debuted the tractor-truck propulsion, the city gave the horses a ceremonial last run; it is said that firefighters and residents complained for years about the trucks, seeing the horses as more reliable.

It might be characteristic of firefighting to both adopt new technologies and cling to practices known to be effective. The fact that firefighters have sought the best tools available to them (better pumps, better means of moving those pumps) is easily understood through the lens of self-preservation against a chaotic danger. These tools, as well as the regulatory frameworks to require safer, less combustible buildings, have worked toward protecting life and property.

The City of Dallas operates on an amended version of the 2015 International Fire Code (IFC). (Actually, every city in Dallas County operates on some version of IFC. Check your jurisdiction, but the parameters remain the same.) Section 503.3 of the code governs fire apparatus access roads, with additional requirements in Appendix D. A rough outline of this section includes where these roads are required, their physical specifications, their markings, and what happens if you block them intentionally (gate) or unintentionally (cars).

This is a situation where the glove must fit the hand. Much here is left to the discretion of the fire code official, given that the firetruck and equipment deployed changes with each site and need, noted regularly through IFC as “when approved by fire code official.”

There are set points with the fire lane, having more to do with how far a firefighter could pull a hose (they’re heavy) and how much clear width a first responder needs with the bulk of protective gear on them. Where base IFC and Dallas amendments do allow for variation is in the size of the fire access road width and the turning radii. These sizes are based on the size of the firetruck most likely to show up on-site.

Section 503.2.1 of IFC outlines a minimum required width of 20 feet with a turning radius of 28 feet and a clear height of 13 feet 6 inches. When a building is taller than 30 feet, this width increases to 26 feet for at least one of the required routes, which must be between 15 feet and 30 feet from the building.

As Dallas buildings have grown in height, its fleet of firetrucks has changed to reach these heights. For buildings taller than 30 feet, aerial trucks are used. These are the trucks that children’s toys are modeled after, equipped with a mobile boom able to lift firefighters to a window and to retrieve people. Suffice to say, these are complicated, expensive pieces of machinery. The city recently spent $1.6 million on a new truck. As buildings get taller, these trucks get longer as their ladders lengthen. Requirements for wider roadways and turning radii are largely from the need to deploy this kind of vehicle.

The clear height of fire lanes might suggest they can be routed underneath a building, or a section of a building, but this is not preferred.

“[It] is not desirable to have a structure cross over a fire lane. … Such structures prove to be an obstruction to responding fire personnel,” said Ricky Butler, fire protection plan reviewer for the City of Dallas. When pressed on specific instances, say a bridge passage between buildings, “structures over a fire lane shall be as limited as possible,” Butler said.

IFC is concerned with whether firetrucks can get there and the type of surface they’re on. Dallas’ amendments stress that the fire lane should be built of asphalt or concrete but allows alternate paving methods so long as they can support loads of 81,500 pounds and are passable in all weather conditions.

“Grasscrete” serves as the shorthand. Fire personnel are interested in an “engineered and repeatable permeable based system … that is determined to be all-weather in their capabilit[y].” If a fire lane is constructed on top of a parking deck or runs over a bridging element, additional engineering standards apply and should be discussed with the fire code official.

A mobile EMS unit, one of many vehicles in a fire department’s arsenal, leaves the BRW Architects-designed City of Houston Fire Station 84. /  Photo: Parrish Ruiz de Velasco

Some low-hanging fruit with fire lanes is their markings. Dallas’ amendments add language describing a 6-foottall continuous line of red paint with 4-inch-tall text and the possible use of a sign of set size in lieu of striping. San Antonio’s fire code allows fire lane markings to be up to 40 feet apart and marked with materials other than paint such as red tiles within the paving. In Dallas, though, the consistency of the fire lane marking is of great importance.

“This consistent indication notifies the responding firefighter or paramedic that a fire apparatus access roadway has been properly designed per current amended fire codes,” Butler said. “Properly designed fire lanes can alert first responders of possible hazards and overhead obstructions or underground structures that might not have been designed to support the imposed load of the fire apparatus.”

If there is a question of what the fire lane ought to be, an obvious answer would be for it to be less conspicuous, a little more like our residential streets. A residential street is about pedestrians and cyclists and cars, trees, and sidewalks, but not crises. There are ways of recovering this piece of infrastructure for place-making effect.

The marked fire lane is an information problem. First responders move fast (and sometimes break things), and that red line painted on the curb is their best way to distill the built environment into a go/no-go scenario. But as an information problem, it has other solutions.

I broached the idea of a GIS dataset that could incorporate this information for firefighters, a new kind of fire map. “That’d be awesome,” Butler said. Of course, this should not be taken as a coordinated response of the city, but it does hint at a potential solution.

Slimming up the fire lane is a whole other battle. The place-making desire for narrower streets is often at odds with the fire lane minimum requirements. Smaller trucks, or at least nimble trucks with smaller turning radii, would go a long way toward helping, and the industry may provide that at some point.

Current options might include mountable curbs so that the largest fire apparatus could move through a site in the off chance it must. When asked about mountable curbs, Butler said, “They often do not allow [for] proper placement of the outriggers on the fire apparatus prior to engaging in aerial maneuvers.” With this difficulty, the benefits of mountable curbs should lead us to find a resolution on how to address the technical requirements of fire equipment.

At some point Dallas will adopt the 2018 version of IFC; while the text governing fire lanes between 2015 and 2018 does not change, Dallas’ amendments might. Fire lanes are not currently positioned as place-making devices in the city of Dallas; IFC allows the fire code official some leeway, encouraging more conversations. Through wise application of new technologies by firefighters and through placemaking advocacy on the part of those engaged with the built environment, this necessary piece of site infrastructure can be made into a place to enjoy.

Gavin Newman is a project coordinator at GFF.