Fire Chiefs Fire Back

In two recent articles, I’ve been critical of local fire chiefs for vetoing design starndards — width of streets, turning radii of street corners — preferred by developers hewing to the New Urbanism school of design. New Urbanists like narrow streets with short turning radii, which are geared to pedestrian traffic. Fire chiefs prefer wider streets with wider turning radii that their big rigs can negotiate. (See “Design by Fire Truck” and “Fire Trucks and Bike Lanes“.)

Now Tom Owens, fire chief for the City of Fairfax and chairman of the Northern Virginia Fire Chiefs Committee, has written, asking me to tell the “other side of the story.” I think he can tell his side of the story better than I, so I will quote him in full:

I read with great interest your article “Design by Fire Truck”, in which you tied community development plans to the design of today’s contemporary firefighting apparatus. There is without question a direct correlation between the configuration of neighborhood streets and the need for safe and effective access for fire and emergency medical vehicles; however, I would encourage you to look deeper into the many other aspects related to a fire department’s strong stance on unencumbered access to neighborhoods.

The “built environment” that fire departments must cope with have changed dramatically over the years. In their legitimate quest to keep housing as affordable as possible, building materials used have become lighter weight, construction techniques have become less substantial, many neighborhoods have homes built with zero lot lines that set the stage for rapid fire spread to neighboring properties, these homes are no longer filled with ordinary wood and paper based furnishings…everything is high density plastic and foam based materials that burn rapidly and generate intense fire spread. The level of heat output experienced today results in early structural failure due to the lightweight construction mentioned

Fire Departments have continuously offered THE solution to the majority of these problems. Residential Fire Sprinkler Systems…..yet…..this same community of urban planners and developers resists building fire protection into these homes. They fight us in the general assembly when we propose such building code requirements and then complain when we insist on effective access into neighborhoods.

If you talk to most Fire Chiefs and Fire Marshals, they will tell you that a Fire Department is very willing to make tradeoffs to requirements IF developers will build more fire protection into these homes.

Owens raises legitimate concerns: the increased flammability of contemporary housing and the danger inherent with putting family dwellings so close together, as New Urbanists are wont to do. I’m delighted to bring those issues to light.

Following Owens’ logic, though, it sounds like a potential answer presents itself, and it’s not getting the General Assembly to mandate residential fire sprinklers. Let the marketplace decide on a case by case basis. If New Urbanist developers want pedestrian-friendly streetscapes badly enough, and if the local fire chiefs are willing to go along, let them install the residential fire sprinkler systems in exchange for the desired street standards.

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18 responses to “Fire Chiefs Fire Back”

  1. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Would I be ugly if I asked if this was an example of location variable costs in reverse?

    We’ve had the running discussion about the location variable costs associated with “scatterization” and others have pointed out that density has increased costs – which I posit here could also be called location variable costs.

    I don’t understand it but the developers I’ve heard are opposed to sprinkler systems in residential because of their increased costs….

    The point that Mr. Owens makes though – applies to ALL housing – whether it be new urban or your typical single family detached in scatterzationville…

    and .. the discussion is interesting… again.. in terms of comparing water/sewered development (with fire hydrants) verses rural residential – which does not have water/sewer/fire hydrants – again… fire hydrants themselves need to be recognized as additional location variable costs also – right?

    and another cost – when you build a mixed-use – you must also build a nearby fire station – an additional location variable cost – right?

    what say the NUR advocates?

  2. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Larry, Interesting questions…. My argument has always been to charge location-variable costs and let the chips fall as they may. Personally, I believe that more compact, less scattered development patterns would be favored. But maybe I’m wrong. My point isn’t to prove my hypothesis correct, it’s to incorporate the true costs into what we build so that, after we’ve factored in all the relevant costs, we come up with the optimal development configuration — regardless of whether it looks like what I expected or not.

    As for the cost of providing fire fighting services… Yes, the cost of installing fire hydrants is one small location-variable cost. A far more important cost, I suspect, is fire department response time. Fire fighters want to reach fires within (pick a number) six, seven, eight minutes of notification. If the response time gets much longer for certain subdivisions, the county has to build a new facility. The cost of building and staffing that facility is significant. A compact, non-scattered development pattern will require fewer fire stations than a scattered, low-density development pattern. (Very much the same logic applies to police and rescue services, too.)

  3. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: fire response time

    homes in rural areas never had short response times to start with – not for fire, (and not for EMS either.) 20-30 minutes response time is not unusual.

    In fact, the firehouse/EMS is not even manned except on weekends when working folks have days off.

    ( FYI – most commuters – as a group – don’t volunteer and so volunteer staffing is usually done by off duty deputies, etc.

    If a fire starts in a rural area – it’s whatever volunteer(s) can get to the firehouse and get the pumper (the “portable” hydrant)…and move it to the home where it would be met by other volunteers (each who has a scanner in their car and home).

    another difference: a fire in a rural area – you might lose a single house.. but in a compact development without a quick response time -you could lose dozens or more homes…
    so a short response time is critical.

    This requires not only a nearby firehouse but usually 24/7 staffing of paid firefighters.

    This has got to cost significantly more than non-paid volunteer units in rural areas…

    ditto EMS… folks in the rural areas often are much better off driving themselves to the hosptial rather than wait 20 minutes or more…for volunteer units to ARRIVE.

    Our county for the last 3 years has been having a knock down, drag out over whether non-commuting local taxpayers can afford the 24/7 coverage wanted by the newcomer NoVA commuters who – WANT HIGHER TAXES to pay for this.

    Talk about your locational cost specific costs – much lower in rural areas who don’t have commuters…. 🙂

  4. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    You are right, some costs go up per acre when the standards change.

    That is why the second Natural Law of Human Settlement Patterns is the U shaped Cost of Service Curve.

    When all is said and done — and those is scaterazaionville pay the higher insurance priemums for not being within x feet of a hydrant and y time (miles) from a fire station, etc there is a sweetspot for fire protection.

    It may be somewhat lower than the sweetspot for transport at the Dooryard, Cluster, Neighborhood, Village or Community scales. Or it may not be, there are a lot of variables.

    The bottom line is, as Jim notes, lets us level the playing field and then see what changes, if any, in cost allocation are necessary.

    Right now the bottom line for location variable cost is so far from equal at the Cluster scale (Natural Law number four the 10 X Rule) that this, in all likely hood will not make a difference.


  5. E M Risse Avatar
    E M Risse


    You will note our two comments are timed the same.

    Mine was to your earlier comment.

    On your 2:33 comment:

    You are are right on re different expectations.

    It is also the case that where there are more “commuters” there are fewer around to “volunteer.”

    One caution, there are no areas withing R=70 with “no commuters” they are just a smaller number and they are less prone to make a fuss.

    This is another place to look for the Tipping Point we discuss in “Burned Out,” 10 July 2006, it is not “no commuters” but when they become a political force.

    Also you did not note insurnce costs. Distance to a hydrant and response time is a factor is homeowners insurance. With GIS systems insurance companies do not even have to ask any more.

    When folks start comparing rates they start ageitating for better servoce.


  6. Jim Wamsley Avatar
    Jim Wamsley

    The problem is not the cost trade off. It is the building codes.
    Low Cost At the present time, cost of a home sprinkler system is targeted at approximately $1.00 to $1.50 per square foot in new construction. It is hoped that the cost will decrease as the use of home fire protection grows. It is also possible to retrofit existing homes with sprinkler systems.

  7. Anonymous Avatar

    just a comment from the real world:

    I live in a sprinklered 4-story townhouse in Vienna. Our narrow streets are considered fire lanes – no parking allowed. There was a fire recently one street over in a non-sprinklered development.

    The fire department is close by, but the house was empty during the day and it wasn’t until a passing garbage truck saw the fire and called it in. By then it was a raging fire. Even though the fire dept got there in minutes it took awhile to get the fire out. The house was almost completely destroyed and the two on either side suffered significant water damage — not to mention the huge holes the fire dept cut into the roofs to see if they were burning internally.

    To me, sprinklers are worth every extra dollar they cost.

  8. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    bottom line with regard to settlement patterns and the locational costs issue –

    If New Urban design is predicated on narrow streets – that impose additional costs with regard to fire safety – then let’s fess up.

    This is an additional cost required by New Urban/Compact Development – not required for fire protection for more “wasteful” subdivisions.

    I wanted to point out also that storm water runoff for urban is one of the more serious issues facing Rivers and the Chesapeake Bay and the more impervious surfaces that a particular type of development has – the more storm water runoff there is and that also – is an additional locational cost when comparing the costs of one type of settlement configuration with another.

    … we ought to try to remain as intelectually honest as we can when advocating for one type of settlement pattern over another…so when we claim that compact development has lower locational costs – and obvious counter examples can be illustrated.. it can undermine the original claim if there is not a reasonable explanation.

    what would be desireable would be a cost comparison matrix – where each category is shown as a cost – then one could look at the grand totals for each column.

  9. Andrea Epps Avatar
    Andrea Epps

    Anon- I couldn’t agree with you more.
    With so much hype about the inefficient proffer system and the resulting per lot costs of between 10k and almost 40k per lot, it would seem like a “no brainer” to add a couple of bucks to save a dwelling from a fire. I wonder what the annual cost savings would be when compared to the actual and residual costs of a house fire.
    As most of you know, I am a huge proponent of TND. Also, My grandfather was LA fire captain/ chief for over 40 years. I assume a broad, clear, understanding that public safety should come first. (I know I shouldn’t assume)
    As for EMS response, six minutes is as far as the line can be stretched on anyone with no circulating blood to the brain. Four minutes would be much better. That should be a level of service standard everywhere, and should be a controlling factor in re-zoning cases. If we could manage to get the larger public to understand that large, well planned, comprehensive zoning was superior to 10 acres here or there, we could possibly get a few fire/EMS stations built without spending public funds.
    We could then direct those savings to infill infrastructure, right?

  10. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Rural areas have traditionally accepted, endured – had no choice but to deal with lower levels of services.

    This was a no-brainer. Folks who lived off the land and made relatively small salaries just simply could not afford higher taxes for higher levels of services.

    If you cut an artery, took a whack on your head or suffered a stroke or heart attack – you were/are now – not anywhere close to a 5 minute response time – much less 5 minutes to emergency care.

    It’s not that rural folks WANTED this level of service.

    It’s simply that they could not – and still cannot afford it.

    The problem that we have is that new folks who commute to jobs that pay significantly more than rural folks who generally work locally – want and expect infrastructure, services, and levels of service – that the rural folks STILL cannot afford.

    And that’s exactly what proffers for rezones are for – to provide to the newcomers the levels of service that they expect and want – as opposed to raising property taxes so high that existing rural residents are burdened unfairly.

    So when I hear of advocacies to do TND…and the answer to the extras expenses of TND is to essentially force higher locational costs on those who live further out – we need to keep in mind that there are two classes…. those that will commute a long ways every day and those.. that lived there all along.. and their income levels are 1/3 to 1/2 of their commuting neighbors.

    The answers are not as easy as we would like them to be.

  11. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    One of the other issues that I feel is central to the settlement pattern issue is to ask folks if they think that TND can, in fact, be in the WRONG PLACE?

    Second Question – Do you think TND in Alexandria functions the same way that TND in Stafford functions?

    You can get down to one car in Alexandria.

    Can two-working parents get down to one car in a Stafford TND?

    If Dad works at the Pentagon and Mom works for Fairfax Schools and they live in a Stafford TND –

    here’s the question –

    does that Stafford TND “work” like it is supposed to work?

    Here’s what it won’t do.

    It will NOT take one car of two in that family off of I-95 at rush hour.

    Unless Dad and Mom carpool, or take VRE or vanpool… there will be two more solo-driven cars on I-95 every day at rush hour.

    Isn’t that what TND was supposed to prevent?

    Each residence generates 10 trips (or 8ish depending on who you talk to) and TND is supposed to “capture” some of those trips but if it fails to capture the home-to-work trip – then basically it fails to capture about 80% of the actual traffic – that it was advertised to capture.

    TND .. is supposed to be a place where you can live, work, play and shop – and I feel that the promise of TND in Alexandria is a lot more likely to be met than TND in Stafford (or Chesterfield.. or name your exurban bedroom commnity that NoVa job holder commute to).

    Don’t we need to at least admit that TND in the wrong place will not likely achieve what TND is being advertised as accomplishing?

  12. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Andrea, I can’t find your e-mail address. Could you contact me at Thanks. Jim

  13. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Larry, Here’s your choice: Counties like Spotsylvania can plan for development in compact, higher-density, interconnected communities that are efficient to serve with utilities and public services, or they can permit helter-skelter development in communities that are inefficient to serve.

    In either case, most of the residents will be hitting Interstate 95 to drive north to work. The difference is that, with well-designed and mutually complementary TNDs, the negative impact will be less than if you let the development sprawl all over.

    Here’s the nub of the problem. Until Fairfax and Prince William adopt more urban patterns of development that can absorb larger populations, the population growth will head your way. You can’t stop it. All you can do is adopt the most rational, efficient development patterns that you can.

  14. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    Jim –

    In either case – I-95 (or Rt 288 in Chesterfield, etc) becomes the focal point for greenfield TNDs.

    I think what I’m reactive to is the vocabulary of TND.

    For an urban area – undergoing redevelopment and infill development TND is a monster of a good idea.

    But called an exurban greenfield compact development – a “traditional neighborhood” because it is (in effect) a Disneyland replica of a small town village… only most of the actual residents commute somewhere else to work and most of the service workers commute from more affordable housing to work in the TND.

    TND in Alexandria… you can easily tout the benefits but what are the benefits of Greenfield exurban TNDs?

    The only one I can find is that some folks claim that you have to do the TND to keep the country from being “sprawled” from by-right development.

    But the folks who “sprawl” are probably not going to ever be choosing between a 3 acre sprawl lot and a TND townhouse.

    They seem to be different consumers entirely and are we so sure that by offering a TND near an I-95 interchange that the folks who wanted the 3acres with the fruit trees is going to decide against the 3acres and take the townhouse?

    Which makes me wonder – why a TND customer would choose a Spotsylvania TND 50 miles away from his NoVa job rather than an Alexandria TND in the first place.

    and the answer is… ???

    If someone actually worked at a job in NoVa (or other urbanized areas) and they liked the idea of living in a TND – why would they drive 50+ miles to an exurban greenfield TND?

    My quess. Cost.

    Does this mean that if more affordable housing was built in urban TNDs that some folks would choose to not commute further out?

  15. Andrea Epps Avatar
    Andrea Epps

    I won’t pretend to understand the physical situation in NoVa…I have no idea. However around here, the largest part of the problem is ancient zoning. Exacerbating this maddening situation is the reality that almost every new rezoning and subdivision wants to be a TND, but isn’t even close. Local ordinances are prohibitive of sustainable design. I have hope that they are going to be much better soon, but we are still stuck with what has developed. Richmond has taken some really positive steps. (Educating and including the public within the planning process) but changing the way people choose to live takes time, nothing but time.
    Looking at the number of people expected in this region, I think it will take far more than TND alone. Yes, like anything else, TND can be poorly located. However, when it’s done properly, (planned and funded) if an individual wants to live without a car, it isn’t a problem.( To me, at this point, anything is superior to road stripped, endless, next newest, cul-de-saced subdivision).

  16. Andrea Epps Avatar
    Andrea Epps

    PS- Transfer of Developemnt Rights programs need to be adopted NOW to aid localities in the quest for preservation of greenfields.It’s a tool…they should use it!

  17. Larry Gross Avatar
    Larry Gross

    re: the people are coming no matter what – so do the best you can under the circumstances.

    Not True entirely.

    First – rezones do not have to be approved – and some localities are not approving them and at the same time are taking whatever steps they can legally to recover infrastructure expenses from by-right development.

    And now that the GA allows transportation impact fees – the higher growth localities are moving forward on this.

    But here’s the premise that sticks in people’s craws – and that is that there are two choices – either accept the by-right – or rezone to re-direct the influx of people to TND and other higher density compact developments.

    This is a false choice. Basically.. the idea is that the only way to slow down (previously rezoned) by-right land development is to get those prospective buyers to instead buy a home in a compact development.

    A Question: Does someone who wants a 3 acre large lot .. going to not buy an available 3 acre large-lot because there is a townhouse in a compact development also available?

    So .. you say.. do something about the by-right land.

    Well.. they have.. and it’s called downzones and the amount of by-right land has been limited but there is still a TON of it available and it will be bought and occupied – NO MATTER what happens with regard to TND/compact development.

    The only thing that TND/compact development accomplishes is MORE high density development that will overwhelm the existing arterials and interstate ramps.

    It is not in the best interests of a exurban commuting locality to approve such high-density rezones unless they are going to receive full mitigation for the roads and the schools via proffers.

    Prince William County has recently stated that they would need 50K per unit for roads IN ADDITION to the 30K per unit for schools, libraries, etc.

    The idea that you’d raise the price even higher to set aside land so that it cannot be developed – as opposed to saving some land that has significant historic, natural or cultural resources is totally wrongheaded in my view.

    First of all – there is so much land – generic land – developable land that there is no way you are going to make a dent in it with any kind of a TDR program.

    All you end up doing to buying scattered parcels of land – that – then make the land around them more valuable because the future houses on those lands will “use” the undevelopment land as an amentity.

    The next issue is if one locality, in effect, raises the price of housing by incorporating TDR fees into the costs – that those houses will cost more than houses in adjacent jurisdictions that do not assess TDR fees.

    By doing this – what you really are doing is pricing housing so high that only the well-off can afford it.

    It’s one thing to charge for infrastructure via proffers – folks can argue about how much and equity with regard to new purchasers verses existing residents but the reality that more infrastructure is needed – cannot be denied.

    Setting aside land so that it cannot be developed.. only raises the price of the land that is not purchased.

    If you could buy up the entire inventory in a county overnight – then this concept might work.

    But you can’t and so what you do.. is incrementally buy up one parcel at a time.. and in the process drive up the cost for the parcels that could not be acquired via TDR.

    Finally – you’ve got to ask yourself. What would a county do with the hundreds/thousands of disconnected parcels once they bought them (assuming they could afford to do so – and the voters would not throw the elected who voted to do this out of office).

  18. Jim:

    Thanks for publishing my reply to your “Design By Fire Truck” article. My hope was that this would spark a dialog on the relationship between development design and fire protection services. From reading the comments of you readers, I am pleased that such a dialog is underway.

    There is a clear need for urban planners, developers, builders and fire chiefs to work together to meet the housing needs of our growing state. The technology of fire sprinkler systems is a proven answer to the fire problem and it is past time for developers/builders to embrace this solution.

    The example of the fire in Vienna that one of your readers mentioned is not the exception….its commonplace. Rapid fire development with adverse impact on neighboring properties occurs daily across our state.

    The comments made about response time are very true…but…consider this, the presence of a fire sprinkler is like having a firefighter on the scene instantly when a fire first ignites.

    I personally agree that this is an issue that should be addressed in the marketplace. Fire Departments around the state have made strong efforts to gain voluntary sprinkler coverage, we have tried the use of the proffer system to gain sprinkler coverage of new developments during rezoning. Our lack of success in gaining voluntary sprinkler coverage is what leads us to the general assembly in an effort to amend the statewide building code, which is both a minimum and maximum code in our commonwealth. This means that local jurisdictions that would like to help developers and builders control costs by makijng tradeoffs for built-in fire protection, can’t because we do not have local option.

    I hope this is a dialog that continues and I thank you for being the catalyst to getting it started.

    Tom Owens
    Fire Chief
    City of Fairfax Fire Department
    Chairman, Northern Virginia Fire Chiefs Committee

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