SFFD Tries to Quietly Nix Supe Wiener’s Ped Safety Reform in Fire Code

The SF Fire Department tried to delete an amendment to the fire code that would allow city agencies greater flexibility in widening sidewalks to improve pedestrian safety, according to Supervisor Scott Wiener, who championed the measure.

Photo: ##http://www.flickr.com/photos/turalyon0001/770974475/in/photostream/##Turalyon0001/Flickr##

The measure was approved unanimously by the Board of Supervisors and signed into law by Mayor Ed Lee this summer. However, SFFD and the Fire Commission apparently removed the provision from a routine update to the fire code submitted to the board’s Land Use and Economic Development Committee on Monday.

Wiener told the SF Chronicle that he was “surprised and disappointed” to learn that SFFD had deleted the provision. SFFD’s end-run around the pedestrian safety reform ultimately failed: Wiener’s measure was reinstated in the fire code update passed by the committee and expected to be approved by the full board. While Wiener emphasized his support for the SFFD and the need for fire truck access, he said the department is “on a collision course with the broadly supported goal of pedestrian safety.”

SFFD officials made no mention of the issue in discussions at the hearing, even after Wiener called out the attempted deletion. Discussion of the fire code was dominated by a proposed requirement for firefighter air replenishment tanks in new high-rise developments.

SF Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White was silent on the department's attempt to remove the amendment to minimum road widths. Image: SFGovTV

Contention about minimum road widths has commonly arisen in plans for pedestrian-friendly street redesigns such as the developing plan for a block of Bartlett Street in the Mission. SFFD officials have protested the 14-foot-wide roadway in the plan, which would be narrower than the traditional minimum of 20 feet, claiming that it would impede fire trucks. The new fire code would allow roadways as narrow as 12 feet, so long as curbs are no higher than six inches and free of vertical obstructions, much like the requirements used by many cities around the country. Wiener has called the 20-foot minimum “one-size-fits-all” and “suburban in nature,” and has pointed out that fire trucks successfully navigate narrower San Francisco streets on a regular basis.

Even after the new roadway minimum is officially included in the fire code, however, SFFD could continue to put pressure against pedestrian safety projects. According to sources who have been involved in street redesigns, the department has even protested against plans to replace parked cars with curb extensions of the same width.

“This is not an isolated incident,” said Leah Shahum, executive director of the SF Bicycle Coalition, who told the Supervisors committee she’d like to hear answers on the issue from Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White. SFFD staff never addressed the matter.

“In my 10+ years working with the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition for safer streets, we see it time and time again … the fire department stepping in and either slowing down or, worse, blocking” projects, said Shahum. “At times I’d even say there’s a chilling effect, where certain departments don’t even bring forward a safety proposal because they believe the fire department’s going to shut it down.”

“There’s absolutely no argument regarding the importance of maintaining and ensuring vehicle access for the Fire Department to both protect and save lives,” said Natalie Burdick of Walk SF, who argued that the new minimum balances that goal with removing “a clear barrier to the city’s stated goal to save lives.”

Wiener said he sees the controversy as a “respectful disagreement” between allies.

“I’m confident that the fire department’s position comes from a place of integrity in terms of wanting what’s best for the city, and so does the other side,” said Wiener. “I hope that we can have a very substantive dialogue moving forward on ensuring that we are protecting our pedestrians and having good fire safety in the city.”

  • Anonymous

    What Wiener said – “I’m confident that the fire department’s position comes from a place of
    integrity in terms of wanting what’s best for the city, and so does the
    other side,” said Wiener. “I hope that we can have a very substantive
    dialogue moving forward on ensuring that we are protecting our
    pedestrians and having good fire safety in the city.”

    What he meant – “I hope I can get these guys to wrap their heads around the fact that if it costs us 20 pedestrian deaths per one person saved in a fire, that’s a net negative”

  • mikesonn

    Yeah, but 20 pedestrian deaths are just *accidents*.

  • Sean Rea

    This does not surprise me. The SFFD constantly blocks the bike lane adjacent to the Folsom station by parking trucks in it. The Folsom station also happens to be the one where a firefighter was caught hitting a motorcyclist while intoxicated. So it should really be no surprise that they are uninterested in pedestrian improvements.

  • Anonymous

    Great article, especially since clearly this issue is very important but not getting any public attention. Yet again, it’s Wiener who’s actually taking the position that needs to be taken. He keeps earning respect in my book.

    SFFD, on the other hand, is disappointing. I’m all for supporting them in their goals, but Wiener said it best when he pointed out that, just like the SFFD has legitimate concerns, so do pedestrians and cyclists. It’s a ridiculous position to say that the codes as they are now are perfect and there is absolutely no way they could change and still allow emergency vehicles access.

  • mikesonn

    Want to see a FD ruin something? Check out the HUGE expanses of pavement at Bayshore *Transit*-oriented development at Hillsdale Caltrain. My god, you could land an airplane on those roads. Not to mention the expensive traffic signals. I can’t wait until they put up some buildings just so I don’t have to look at the huge swaths of black gold.

  • Native Franciscan

    Theres a simple explination why sffd is fighting this. Its not that they are anti-pedestrian. Wiener wants to extend the sidewalks out into the streets. If that happens you’ve just eliminated the trucks ability to rescue anyone above the third floor in any highrise next to the widened sidewalk (like market & Dolores), because aerial jackes won’t be able to be deployed. There so much hate for the FD. Lets get angry at all the homeless taking up space on our sidewalks – there’s an issue…..

  • gneiss

    Why can’t the fire trucks just drive up onto the sidewalk? Oh that’s right, god forbid we remove on street parking in front of these high rises…

  • Anonymous

    We might eliiminate the ability of those trucks to rescue the pedestrian that got run over by a car because of the poor street design we put in so that the SFFD could resuce them, oh my.

  • Jeremy

    The code explicitly does not require fire rescue above the 3 floor for that very reason. Egress windows aren’t part of the building code at that height. Fire personnel have to go into the building regardless.

  • They don’t get blamed (or feel guilt/remorse) when someone’s hit by a delivery truck (that isn’t on fire), though.

  • justin schorr

    Perhaps if pedestrians used crosswalks and bikes followed traffic rules there would be Improved safety?

  • Sprague

    Perhaps if motorists followed traffic rules there would be improved safety? But until that happens, let’s shorten the distance pedestrians need to cross the street with the installation of more corner bulbouts, let’s daylight intersections (increasing the visibility of pedestrians for motorists and cyclists as they approach crosswalks), and let’s see more streets be subjected to road diets and other measures that effectively discourage speeding.

  • Anonymous

    I think bollards on curbs would help pedestrian safety more than wider sidewalks. However, bollards could get in the way of big emergency vehicles which for some reason I don’t know now, would work better driving up onto the sidewalk, and are able to physically. I have read stories of many accidents in which pedestrians and even buildings were hurt by wayward cars driven onto sidewalks and into buildings. Aside from physical street design, I think the most important element in pedestrian safety is simply for pedestrians to be always aware of all their surroundings and the possible hazards. If you are aware, you can move away from most dangers quickly enough.

  • Gus

    I wonder how the 5 P.M. cocktail hour in S.F. firehouses over the past century
    has effected pedestrian safety in a positive or negative manner?


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