Scott Wiener: SFFD’s Next Fire Truck Fleet Needs to Be More Versatile

The SF Fire Department needs to replace its aging fire trucks soon, and Supervisor Scott Wiener says the department should use the purchase to take advantage of more versatile models that other cities are using to navigate narrow streets.

SFFD has fought against pedestrian safety improvements that narrow roadways, claiming that they hinder fire truck access, even though other cities use lower street width minimums, and San Francisco has plenty of slender streets that firefighters regularly serve.

“Our fire trucks should be designed around the needs of our city, not vice versa,” said Wiener.

While SFFD has protested wider sidewalks, officials haven’t targeted much more prevalent obstacles like double-parked cars, and they admit they don’t have a firm grasp on what’s causing recent increases in response times. SFFD Assistant Deputy Chief Ken Lombardi said at a hearing in January that “there could just be more cars.”

“While I and others have disputed [SFFD's] assertions,” said Wiener, “if the department is concerned, the solution is to take a hard look at truck design.”

Smaller trucks, better designed for tight spaces than most of SFFD’s current fleet, are in use by a station in Bernal Heights, and they’re commonly seen in older cities in Europe and Japan. But SFFD has made several excuses about why it can’t buy more of them. At the January hearing, Lombardi said that fewer American manufacturers are producing smaller fire trucks, that smaller trucks tend not to meet smog standards, and that powerful engines are needed to climb San Francisco’s steep hills.

Regardless, the actual size of fire trucks isn’t necessarily as important as smart design features that allow them to operate within a smaller space, said Patrick Siegman, a principal at the transportation planning firm Nelson/Nygaard who focuses on emergency vehicle issues. Most of SFFD’s current trucks lack features like a tighter turning radius, roll-up cabinet doors on the sides of trucks (they have doors that swing out), hose pumps on the rear instead of the sides, and “stabilizers” to keep ladders propped up that don’t protrude out as much, he said.

“Some jurisdictions are purchasing equipment that’s not necessarily smaller, but better designed for working in close quarters, for maneuvering in congested traffic and on existing slender streets,” said Siegman.

Siegman noted that Anaheim’s fire department recently bought trucks with hose pumps on the rear, and noted that several European fire truck manufacturers known for making vehicles friendly for narrow streets, including one called Rosenbauer, recently started selling their vehicles in the U.S.

“Certainly, one way or another, the Fire Department’s dedicated to responding to emergencies and will work out a way to do it,” said Siegman.

According to the SF Examiner, about 10 percent of SFFD’s 300 vehicles have been in service for longer than their recommended functional service life of 15 years, and the department would need $28.1 million to replace the 18 trucks, 31 engines, and 20 ambulances it wants to get rid of.