SFFD Responds to “Special Interest Group Allegations” on Street Safety

The SF Fire Department has issued a statement on what it calls “allegations being made by special interest groups” regarding the department’s resistance to sidewalk bulb-outs and other safety improvements. We can only assume the groups SFFD is referring to are Walk SF (which penned an op-ed in the SF Examiner yesterday), Supervisor Scott Wiener, and Streetsblog.

An SFFD truck turns to avoid cars parked at a perpendicular angle, as seen in a ##http://www.ktvu.com/news/news/special-reports/tight-streets/nbKkZ/##KTVU segment## in which the department points fingers at bulb-outs, bike lanes, and medians for slowing them down.

An SFFD truck seen turning to avoid cars parked at a perpendicular angle in a KTVU segment where firefighters point fingers at bulb-outs, bike lanes, and medians for slowing them down.

The statement admits that SFFD Chief Johanne Hayes-White erred last week when she claimed that pedestrians are found at fault in 74 percent of crashes. “Recently, the Fire Department was provided with data related to incidents involving pedestrians and vehicles that was misinterpreted. The moment the error was brought to our attention a correction was made,” the statement says.

In addition to “special interest groups,” the release includes a few other bizarre statements, including one that betrays a fundamental failure to comprehend how sidewalk extensions improve pedestrian safety (by calming traffic, slowing drivers’ turns, and making pedestrians more visible before they cross):

We haven’t seen pedestrians being hit by vehicles on sidewalks because the sidewalks are too narrow. Furthermore, by narrowing city streets our vehicles and any other large vehicle traveling through San Francisco would be forced to cross into oncoming traffic to make a right-hand turn under normal circumstances. Proposals such as these cannot possibly make our streets, pedestrians and bicyclists safer.

“It is a ludicrous suggestion that the Fire Department would somehow be against improving the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists,” the statement says.

SFFD also maintains its position that road width minimums of less than 20 feet are untenable for fire trucks, saying, “The minimum width is in the Fire Code for a reason.” That reason, however, probably has more to do with the fact that state-adopted fire codes are crafted by the International Code Council, a Texas-based nonprofit, based on a suburban model, and basically copied in cookie-cutter form. Plenty of American cities use 12-foot minimums, and SF has had streets narrower than 20 feet long before it started installing bulb-outs, which typically only replace parked cars that take up street width anyway.

As a reminder, the Board of Supervisors adopted a local 12-foot minimum this fall (as allowed by state law), and SFFD unsuccessfully tried to nix it.

SFFD claims it “has done nothing to ‘block’ traffic calming efforts,” despite countless reports from city staffers and street safety advocates of doing just that. Notably, SFFD protests led the Planning Department to water down the pedestrian-friendly plan for a block of Bartlett Street in the Mission this summer.

Here’s SFFD’s full statement:

Allegations being made by special interest groups that the San Francisco Fire Department is “opposed to” or “blocking” the progress of pedestrian safety measures that are being taken in San Francisco are simply not true.

As First Responders we are the first of the city’s agencies to recognize that there are far too many pedestrians and bicyclists suffering needless injuries and deaths on the streets of San Francisco each year. Emergency Responders are deeply affected each time they confront a serious death or injury. It is a ludicrous suggestion that the Fire Department would somehow be against improving the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists.

Recently, the Fire Department was provided with data related to incidents involving pedestrians and vehicles that was misinterpreted. The moment the error was brought to our attention a correction was made. At no time did the Chief of Department place blame on pedestrians, or motorists for that matter, for any of the unfortunate incidents that have occurred in San Francisco. Clearly, each incident has its own set of circumstances so to place a blanket of blame on any one set of people would be irresponsible and unproductive.

Included in the Fire Code and required by State Law (Title 19) is a minimum width for city streets, 20 feet. The minimum width is in the Fire Code for a reason. All of our Fire Apparatus have a limitation on the turning radius, our aerial trucks require a certain amount of space to deploy the outriggers lest the aerial ladders are rendered useless and we must have enough space to pass by an already positioned fire engine to secure a water supply at the scene of a working fire.

In addition to the needs of the Fire Department to complete the mission of saving lives and property we are held to a certain standard, set by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Emergency Medical Services Agency (EMSA), to meet certain response times. Our stance on slower response times is not what is being reported in the media. We have not stated that bulb-outs which are currently in place have made our response times slower, we are simply stating that if we can’t maneuver the turn, our response times will be slower, there are no two ways about it.

The Fire Department has done nothing to “block” traffic calming efforts. We have been and continue to collaborate with DPW and MTA. We are, on a regular basis, doing analysis and performing cone testing to ensure our ability to SAFELY and successfully maneuver the narrow turns that bulb-outs create. Suggestions that bulb-outs make the intersections easier for fire response vehicles because “the vehicles can mount the curb” also suggests that bulb-outs are actually less safe for the pedestrian if fire vehicles have to drive onto the bulb-out, where pedestrians will be standing, to make the turn. There is no intention to obstruct or slow things down, but we don’t want to compromise our ability to get to our destination. We can and will work with the Transportation Advisory Staff Committee (TASC) on a case by case basis.

The Fire Department takes a realistic position in the fact that there are currently 30+ cranes positioned throughout the City. This means only one thing….more housing, more people, more automobiles and more foot traffic.

Development projects that are being proposed include widening sidewalks and narrowing streets to 16 feet in width, citing that wider sidewalks make pedestrians safer. We haven’t seen pedestrians being hit by vehicles on sidewalks because the sidewalks are too narrow. Furthermore, by narrowing city streets our vehicles and any other large vehicle traveling through San Francisco would be forced to cross into oncoming traffic to make a right-hand turn under normal circumstances. Proposals such as these cannot possibly make our streets, pedestrians and bicyclists safer.

We fully support Proposition B. We are not suggesting that there is no place for bulb-outs in the overall goal of creating a safer city for pedestrians and bicyclists. What we are saying is that it isn’t as simple as the special interest groups are suggesting that it is. There is a much larger picture that isn’t being looked at and the Fire Department’s concerns are only one piece of it.

We believe the newly painted bike lanes with lane designators have proven to be a very effective solution to creating safer streets for bicyclists. We support ongoing efforts for improved street lighting as well. A solution that the Fire Department feels should be considered that would be at a minimum cost with the same or similar results, creating greater visibility of pedestrians, is “daylighting”. Daylighting is simply painting curb extensions. Another low cost but effective solution to preventing crosswalk incidents is installing crosswalk beacons.

The ultimate goal is to improve safety for ALL and it is a shared responsibility.