SF Firefighters Take Campaign Against Safe Street Design to North Beach

At a community meeting about bulb-outs in North Beach tomorrow evening, some residents and firefighters are expected to speak against the curb extensions on the grounds that they make streets more dangerous.

Image: KTVU

As Hoodline has reported, the leadership of the North Beach Neighbors and the SF Fire Fighters Union have drummed up opposition to bulb-outs proposed at four intersections along Columbus Avenue. NBN will hold its second public discussion on the issue tomorrow.

While the SF Fire Department’s top brass has shown signs of letting go of its opposition to curb extensions, SF Fire Fighters Union Local 798 has maintained a campaign for wider, more dangerous roadways.

Now there’s tension between the union and the fire department about street design. In a June 18 letter to SFFD Chief Johanne Hayes-White [PDF], Local 798 President Tom O’Connor protested the department’s “very troubling” approval of “obstacles” that “will require our members to knowingly drive into oncoming traffic” (yes, some firefighters still make that claim):

We further assert that any and all obstacles that have already installed [sic] should completely [sic] removed on the basis that they are a danger to public safety, to our members and to the integrity of our apparatus and finally as a violation of the California Vehicle Code.

NBN President Trish Herman has fueled the flames. She told Hoodline that “bulb-outs in the Castro have caused traffic back-ups,” presumably referring to Castro Street’s recent sidewalk expansion, which narrowed its excessively wide traffic lanes. She also complained about sidewalk space removing parking: “They’re not considering the vehicle public,” she said.

Bulb-outs improve the visibility of pedestrians, shorten crossing distances, and keep drivers from barreling around turns at high speed and hitting people. They are an increasingly common street safety measure in SF.

At the April 30 meeting, Fire Union Director Adrienne Sims told the crowd that the SFMTA doesn’t consider families in its street design, according to Hoodline.

Firefighter Tony Rivera also told the crowd, “We have the smallest fire engines in the nation.”

Not according to a January report [PDF] from the Board of Supervisors’ Budget and Legislative Analyst, which recommended that SFFD stop fighting curb extensions and find ways to procure more versatile vehicles. “Other cities and towns across the country also have small streets and sharp turns and have purchased specialized vehicles that can operate in these environments,” the report said.

SFFD officials have admitted that they don’t know what’s causing worsening response times, and that “there might just be more cars.” But the department has long used its veto power to water down street safety projects, insisting on street width standards intended for the suburbs, and erroneously blaming people walking and biking for their own injuries and deaths.

Tony Wessling, a street safety advocate in North Beach, filmed a video of one of the routine tests conducted by SFFD and SFMTA to see how well a fire truck driver can navigate a turn around a proposed curb extension. In the video, the truck driver navigates an extremely tight right turn from Mason onto Greenwich Street. The driver’s back wheel hit one of the cones simulating the expanded width of a pedestrian island. When that happens, the curb width is typically shaved off, according to city staff.

Sources close to the situation said some firefighters conducting the tests have appeared to hit cones on purpose.

“It makes no sense to design the city around the fire equipment,” Wessling told Hoodline. “It makes better sense to design the fire equipment around the city.”

Tomorrow’s North Beach Neighbors meeting will be held tomorrow at 6:30 p.m. at the SF Italian Athletic Club.

  • 94110

    “Vehicle public”? Is that an official term?

  • shotwellian

    I’m completely baffled by this. Are people seriously claiming that a fire truck can’t just drive over a curb? Especially considering that the bulb-outs will replace parked cars, which are genuine obstacles, what on earth is the real issue here?

  • jonobate

    Yep. Just like “bike people”.

  • Won’t *someone* represent the needs of the Vehicular-American community?!

  • Jessica Zenk

    Hi-larious, Thomas

  • salsaman

    The Union benefits from the FD having the biggest budgets possible, which I would guess means having the biggest vehicles possible requiring as many people as possible to operate. Just a guess.

  • Gezellig
  • Gezellig

    I think that must be what she meant by this:


  • bike_engineer

    san francisco is unique in that it needs very powerful and therefor large trucks to get up the steep inclines of hills, so having large vehicles is rooted in the geography of the city. source: SFFD Fire Captain

  • neroden

    What a big pile of bullshit. Smaller vehicles go up steep hills more easily.

  • gneiss

    Actually, the reason why response times have gone up in the city is simple. Over the last few years, the San Francisco Fire Chief has failed to invest in needed Ambulance service, despite being given the money to do so: http://www.emsworld.com/news/11520659/san-francisco-fire-department-lacks-paramedics-ambulances

    Anything else from the Union or Fire Department Brass is simple whitewashing in an attempt to deflect attention away from the fact that the Fire Chief wants more than the $10 million allocated for the purpose of hiring new paramedics and equipment. She and the union wants to use this money instead to buy new fire trucks rather than ambulances, for the simple reason that they require higher paid fire fighters than paramedics. Bulb outs in the streets just happen to be a visible scapegoat they can use to try and hide their failing to follow through with the supervisors directive to hire more paramedics.

  • shotwellian

    But even if there a genuine need for especially large fire trucks, that wouldn’t be an argument against sidewalk extensions that fire trucks can just drive over. Is this all just elaborate cover for the crusade for more street parking?

  • Reality Broker

    City of Portland has long since designed and tested curb extensions that can be mounted by emergency vehicles when needed.

    Perhaps SFMTA should reach out to them.

  • Mesozoic Polk

    We love the concept of “vehicle public”! Thank you, North Beach Neighbors, for reminding us that cars are people too!

  • bike_engineer

    yes but those smaller vehicles aren’t carrying HUGE volumes of water. to carry all that water those trucks need big powerful engines and therefor large chassis and drivetrains. its not rocket science

  • bike_engineer

    I was just refuting that having larger vehicles is a union move.

  • murphstahoe

    wow. I guess those fire hydrants are just a mirage.

  • murphstahoe

    regardless of water, small vehicles can carry a paramedic to someone’s house in the event of a medical emergency.

  • bike_engineer

    fire trucks are always going to be the first responders. its just the nature of how many fire houses are spread throughout the city. they may not have time to wait for a smaller vehicle to arrive to transport them to the scene. those 2 minutes could be the difference between life and death.

  • murphstahoe

    and you know the other thing that is the difference between life and death in a medical emergency? that’s right – ” carrying HUGE volumes of water”

  • bike_engineer

    now you’re just being obtuse. what you said holds no logic with how the FD operates and how they have to be ready for every emergency. I’m trying to provide information from the direct sources I have. not argue with you. the truck always has to be carrying water and will always have the fastest response times due to the sheer number of trucks opposed to any other rescue vehicle.

  • Nicasio Nakamine

    Fire trucks don’t carry the water with them.

  • Mesozoic Polk

    Fire hydrants (and their associated no parking zones) are also a conspiracy to steal on-street parking away from motorists.

  • jd_x

    Wait, so the author is showing a video which *supports* SFPD’s view and you’re saying he’s being biased?

  • jd_x

    Wait: the truck should be smaller if it has to go up steep hills. The larger, the more mass which means the more it has to haul against gravity. Sure, the engine will be a little bigger, but making the engine, say, 20% more powerful doesn’t mean the truck needs to be 20% bigger. For example, a Ferrari has a much more powerful engine than an SUV yet is much smaller.

  • shamelessly

    The perspectives of the SFFD chief and union officials around curb cuts seems both suburban and windshield based. I’m curious what percent of SF firefighters live within the city limits. I’m also curious what percentage of them commute by car.

  • Nicasio Nakamine

    Wow! I didn’t know!

  • gb52

    This is almost ridiculous that this is an ongoing discussion… Bulbouts are not the issue. It’s the CARS!!! Double parked cars, cars parked in no parking zones, cars parked at bus stops, cars parked right there on the corner!! And omg, what do we do with drivers that park their CARS at the Bulbout?! Can we call in a bulldozer, or how about a steam roller… They should not be allowed to drive!

  • It’s my video, not Aaron’s, and what it actually shows is _not_ a proposed bulb-out at all but a test of how the crossing might be redesigned to make it so it doesn’t bisect the bus stop across Columbus. That particular approach was, I understand, abandoned for a number of reasons — but not because of the width of the pedestrian island, which could have been shaved another few inches to allow a hook and ladder to round the corner safely.

    What it does show is that even in the most extreme scenarios (a hook-and-ladder would never, in any practical scenario, ever have to turn right at that corner) a hook-and-ladder could make the turn if the pedestrian island were to be extended. Which it is not going to be. For other reasons. But even if it were, simply rounding that edge of the curb would satisfy SFFD’s requirements so it’s not the end of the world — ever — unless there’s a significant, physical barrier to fire truck maneuverability. And even then, it’s not the end of the world.

  • It really is a shame that 6 inch curbs are impenetrable by trucks while parked cars are not an issue. It reminds me of those video games where you can knock down every light pole but youre dead if you hit a bush

  • murphstahoe

    What’s even more puzzling is that fire trucks are unable to drive over 6 inch curbs, but random Honda Prius’ seem to have no problem driving up 6 inch curbs to park on the sidewalk.

  • Brian Draiger

    Well if you want to count people as “bumps” I’m sure it would work fine!
    I just dont think that would be politically correct to run over pedestrians on the “bulbs”.

  • Brian Draiger

    Well people use cars. Unless traffic is reduced, creating “more traffic” still doesnt result in “less traffic”. You’d think that would be obvious but it isnt the to the city council over in SF city hall. Its almost embarrassing to hear their demented views on the reality of traffic and city planning.

  • Brian Draiger

    They can, but you are talking about a very heavy vehicle drive up and over sidewalks. This not only harms the suspension of the vehicle designed to drive on city streets but it literally runs down the bulbs, created cracks and ultimately a maintenance nightmare.


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