SFFD “Imposing the Authority” to Demand Wider, Speedier Streets

The debate over whether San Francisco’s streets should be wider and less safe just to accommodate fire trucks was aired publicly at a City Hall hearing yesterday. Livable streets advocates and Supervisor Scott Wiener, who called the hearing, challenged the SF Fire Department’s insistence on wider roadways, particularly its recent eleventh-hour push to change street widths that were agreed upon years ago in redevelopments at Hunters Point Shipyard and Candlestick Point.

Fire Marshall Michie Wong. Image: SFGovTV
Fire Marshal Michie Wong. Image: SFGovTV

Officials from SFFD and the Department of Public Works asserted that dozens of miles of new residential streets planned in those redevelopments were not limited to 20 feet wide, as stipulated in city plans and agreements. Instead, they insisted that the roads must be expanded to 26 feet. Officials from the Office of Community Investment and Infrastructure (the successor to the SF Redevelopment Agency), the developers, and community members involved in the decades of planning for those projects all disagreed.

SFFD officials disregarded those agreements, as well as 20-foot minimums set in the state fire code — the same width SFFD defended when it attempted to subvert new 12-foot minimums last yearFire Marshal Michie Wong said the department prefers 26 feet because that’s the standard set in the International Fire Code, even though city policies have set much lower minimums. Wong said SFFD has printed documents telling developers that the minimum street width under the Fire Code is 26 feet.

“We are imposing the authority to use whatever we need to justify the increased width,” said Wong. Using the International Fire Code standard “as a guideline is sound judgment.”

In response, Wiener said, “I have an issue when the legislative body that the voters have elected has chosen not to adopt a particular requirement, that the Fire Department would nevertheless impose that.”

To make the department’s case, SFFD Assistant Deputy Chief Ken Lombardi showed a presentation of photos and videos from fires in the city where they claimed limited space between parked cars made the job difficult, including the recent major construction fire in Mission Bay, and a similar one in Houston, Texas.

“Using the example of extreme [situations] does not help the conversation; it definitely escalates fear in people,” said Cheryl Brinkman, who sits on the SFMTA Board of Directors but spoke only for herself. “I think we have more to fear every day from poorly-designed streets.”

Wiener asked Lombardi if he also had photos of pedestrian crashes, which comprise a major chunk of SFFD’s emergency responses. Lombardi said showing photos of victims was against the law, and noted that he spoke to the Pedestrian Safety Advisory Committee in January, where he admitted the department doesn’t quite know what is delaying fire responses. “There could just be more cars,” he said at the time.

Transportation planners like Ricardo Olea, the SFMTA’s chief traffic engineer, presented data showing the exponential correlation between street width and driving speeds, which lead to traffic crashes in greater numbers and severity. A study done in Longmont, Colorado found that an increase in street width from 24 to 36 feet led to a 485 percent increase in injury crashes, on average.

“The general professional consensus has been that American streets were built too wide originally,” said Olea. “It’s important to get our new streets correct.”

Fires “don’t happen every day,” but “street safety happens every day,” said Allan Jacobs, the former head of the SF Planning Department, and an emeritus professor of city planning at UC Berkeley. Jacobs noted that the number of fire victims in the city is dwarfed by the number of pedestrian victims — about three struck every day, with roughly two dozen killed each year.

“If the highest priority is fire safety, you’d end up with wider and wider streets,” said Jacobs. “You lose housing. It’d be a less livable city.”

Kofi Bonner, representing the developer at Hunters Point and Candlestick Point, said expanding the agreed-upon street widths would likely take space from sidewalks, rainfall-absorbing “bioswale” gardens, parks, and potentially residences.

“I thought we were beyond this,” said Bonner, referring to the SFFD’s push to change agreements set four years ago. “We can’t afford to re-think this.”

Pointing to the examples of construction fires cited by SFFD’s Lombardi, Livable City Executive Director Tom Radulovich said there were numerous other fire safety measures to take other than simply widening the streets. For one, SFFD could ban car parking in front of construction sites where sprinklers have not yet been activated.

“Designing streets that [will be] overly wide for decades, just to deal with an issue that only happens during construction, is stupid,” he said. Traffic violence “is the biggest public safety problem we have as a city,” and narrower streets “are some of the city’s best streets to live on.”

“People who live in Hunters Point, or who live any part of this city, deserve to have great, walkable, complete streets,” said Wiener.

  • saimin

    Is the problem the width of the street or the subsidized on-street parking that severely limits the part of the street that emergency vehicles can use?

  • BBnet3000

    Particularly near the corners.

  • phoca2004

    It sounds like the problem is a “public safety” department that seems to ignore the lions share part of its focus – medical response. It also sounds like there is no interest on the part of SFFD in looking at creative solutions like daylighting corners. It sounds like there is a leadership “issue” in the SFFD.

  • I’m glad Allan Jacobs was there to represent sanity. He’s the first person who ever explained it succinctly to me: We need to design the streets for the people, and then design the emergency equipment to fit the streets.

    Designing the streets to fit the a la mode fire equipment means that we will have to live with dangerous, unfriendly situations for the next half century at least.

    There may not even be a need for the hook and ladder in 50 years, so why design our world around it?

  • Aaron, because a lot of us could not attend this hearing, could you give a very straightforward read on where this seems to be headed? I’m not asking you to tell us what we want to hear — honestly, was there enough force to the SFFD argument that it seems it could prevail?

  • Don’t firetrucks usually work to deliver paramedics who would probably prefer less wide roads for public safety, crossing children, etc?

  • DrunkEngineer

    Can someone explain how the SFFD came up with the 26′ number? Section 503.2.1 of the year-2013 Fire Code specifically says 20′. I don’t find any mention of a 26′ requirement.

  • Christ

    Why would you deliver a paramedic with a big fire truck instead of a smaller van that is properly equipped to bring all the required emergency equipment for the paramedic, and allows to transport a patient back in it (aka an embulance)? That’s how we do it here in Europe and it seems to work pretty well..

  • The fire department isn’t evil, they just have a singular viewpoint that blinds them to the overall picture. They are doing their job, but it’s our job to keep them from doing something very wrong. Or we have to suffer the daily consequences of their impaired judgement.

  • murphstahoe

    Impaired judgement has proven to be worse than evil lately.

  • Chris J.

    Who has the legal authority to make the final call?

  • gneiss

    To say that the “International Fire Code” are standards adopted by countries other than the United States is like saying that the World Series includes teams from countries other than the United States. The ICC is a purely US based organization that promulgates industry standards that they themselves decide http://www.iccsafe.org/abouticc/Pages/default.aspx without any input from organizations outside the US. In fact, given the nature of the built environment in much of the US, it’s highly likely that this body would present standards more like suburban streets than any state where dense cities exist.

    It is pure fiction for the SFFD to be promoting the use of these standards as somehow “better” than other ones which have been adopted by the State of California and the city. This is nothing more than an effort by the leadership of the SFFD to impose their vision of what the city should look like on the rest of us, which seems more like San Jose and less like San Francisco. I am glad we have supervisors Scott Wiener pushing back on them.

  • DrunkEngineer

    I believe California Building Code is the legal standard. And in any case, CBC is based on the ICC.

  • Richard Mlynarik

    ICC? War crimes charges against US officials? Bring it on!

  • @saimin – Indeed, that’s the part of this issue that confuses the heck out of me, since this started with a proposal for bulbouts in the Inner Sunset and the SFPD would rather have a row of cars blocking the way.

  • On a previous story on this topic, another commenter noted that the Congress for the New Urbanism issued a helpful report in 2009, which provides objective data on safety and response times, and notes where common ground between livable streets activists and emergency responders might be found:


  • Kevin J

    26′ instead of 20′ means an extra 6′ for dedicated and separated bike lanes, but the SFPD will probably insist bike riders can go fuck themselves and quite bitching about safety without a thought to the pour drivers who’d be forced to share the road.


  • jake_901

    Narrow streets induce bad pedestrian behavior. Wide streets encourage bad auto driver behavior. There are other ways to quiet streets.

  • “We must put people’s lives in danger to save lives.” – SFFD

  • Was there any discussion about using smaller vehicles?

  • ubrayj02

    This is the new front line of the bike lane debate in California. To be adjudicated soon! The fire departments don’t come with data from existing bike lane projects, they don’t look at crash statistics, but they DO come with a standard issue U.S. traffic engineering perspective and organized and influential unions.

    Good luck, bike brigade.

  • Honestly, I could not speak to that.

  • amp

    there’s an optional appendix in the International Fire Code, not adopted in CA or in SF, which states that on streets with buildings 30′ and higher, the unobstructed street clearance must be 26′. Even though CA and SF did not adopt this appendix (Appendix D), SFFD imposes it anyway.

  • And what would that “bad” pedestrian behavior be, @jake_901:disqus ? Using The Public Right-of-Way as it was intended? As a “public right-of-way” vs someplace where human beings have to fear for their lives because the 2-ton steel monsters have taken over?

  • Hi @Kevin J. Welcome to Streetsblog SF.

    We generally try to keep the discourse civil, with the two exceptions being when Rob Andersen or sfparkripoff/somasoma try to pollute the waters.

  • NoeValleyJim

    It is amusing that SFFD thinks they can “impose” their will on the body that sets their budget. I think they are overstepping their boundaries here.

  • Nathanael

    It would be suitable to fire Wong, and quite possibly the SFFD Chief for insubordination, abuse of authority, refusal to adhere to city ordinances, and deliberately misleading the public.


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