Last week, city council members in the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee directed the Baltimore City Fire Department and other agencies to resolve a thorny issue that’s stalled bike lanes and development projects. Make “demonstrable progress” on projects that have been delayed by a dispute over a provision of the fire code, committee chair Eric Costello said, or the council will pass legislation removing a rule that sets required street clearances for fire equipment.
The fire department responded by making a home movie for the council.
In a nine-minute video sent privately to city lawmakers, and obtained by Baltimore Fishbowl, the fire department brought a tiller fire truck to Maryland Avenue near 28th Street—as it happens, the same block where Liz Cornish, executive director of cycling-advocacy nonprofit Bikemore, lives—and The Severn Apartments in Mount Vernon.
Firefighters then demonstrated how one of the very large truck’s outriggers struggles to find adequate space near traffic to anchor down. In both cases, the truck sits in the middle of the street, buffered on one side by parked cars and a two-way, protected curbside bike lane.
On Maryland Avenue, the tiller halts near a row of parked autos to its left, leaving the truck’s driver struggling to find room to get in and out of the driver’s-side door. (At one point, he looks at the camera and throws up an arm in apparent exasperation.)
On Cathedral Street, the crew demos how its aerial ladder can’t reach the top floor of the Severn Apartments in the event of a fire. Implicitly, the message is that the bike lane/non-curbside-parking combo places a truck too far away from the building to do their jobs. They also try using a portable ladder, but it only reaches the fourth floor of the 10-story building.
City Councilman Ryan Dorsey, who’s proposed legislation to strip out the street-clearance provisions of Baltimore’s fire code, isn’t buying it.
He says the apparatus seen above is “not a truck that would ever be called” to Maryland Avenue, and that the driver intentionally positioned it so he would struggle to open or get in the door. “That’s a truck that the city spent millions of dollars on and has never used. It’s too big for the firehouse,” he adds.
Fire department spokeswoman Blair Skinner declined to refute this claim.
Down on Cathedral Street, the tiller might be the right apparatus to deploy in case of a fire, Dorsey says, but the driver parks it in the middle of the road rather than close to a nearby alley, where the truck could anchor down closer to the building.
The councilman called the video a “phenomenal waste of employee time and resources” that “demonstrates nothing.”
“If apparatus access is such a great concern for them, they really did an outstanding job of obstructing traffic and potential emergency access while they were making these videos.”
Asked to comment on the footage or Dorsey’s bill, Skinner wrote in an email, “Unfortunately, we do not have any comments pertaining to the video.”
Bikemore policy director Jed Weeks said the truck stops “directly in front” of Cornish’s home on Maryland Avenue. The firefighters filmed the video just three hours after the latest hearing ended, he says. Dorsey argues the effort amounts to “a blatant intimidation tactic.”
Bikemore has been battling with the fire department over bike lanes for more than a year. International fire code standards adopted by the city—Appendix D, specifically—require 20 feet of clearance for fire engines, and 26 feet of clearance for ladders and other equipment. Dorsey’s bill would strip out Appendix D, subbing in more flexible language.
The wonky issue of fire-apparatus clearance became a public debate last spring, after neighbors in Canton cited the 20-foot rule to try to block implementation of a two-way bike lane along Potomac Street. They at first convinced the city to modify the lane. When Bikemore protested the redesign, the mayor’s office decided to tear out the lane completely. Bikemore sued, both parties settled and the lane stayed.
But other cycling infrastructure projects have since stalled over the last year. Bikemore has made the case that the city is applying the clearance rule discriminatorily toward bike lanes, while ignoring it for other street design projects. The fire department says limiting street clearance with bike lanes poses a public safety threat.
The subject has created tension. Shortly after the issue was brought up at a public meeting in May, a spat ensued and a firefighter allegedly assaulted a cyclist.
Aside from biking advocates, a statewide group representing developers supports Dorsey’s bill. Joshua Greenfeld, of the Maryland Building Industry Association, says it’s in their best interest because “customers”—presumably potential tenants—in urban areas demand bike lanes and “multi-modal” transit options, for which Baltimore is lacking.
But in the fallout of the Canton debacle last spring, he says, the fire department “began to exercise a veto over projects” at the Planning Department’s Site Planning Review Committee, citing street clearance issues with many projects.
Such rules “are impractical and oftentimes factually impossible to create in an urban built environment,” Greenfeld says. He points to Seattle as an exemplary city that’s adapted by creating its own street design manual, rather than adopting international fire code provisions for street design.
Weeks adds that Philadelphia also drew up its own street design manual for public roads, and Denver, like Baltimore, has adopted international fire code provisions while leaving out Appendix D.
“It’s not a new challenge,” Greenfeld says. “There are plenty of urban areas that deal with these issues of creating new things in a built environment.”
The council was set to vote on Dorsey’s bill on Monday, but tabled its vote until its next meeting, set for July 9.
In the meantime, Dorsey says the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee plans to hold a hearing next week about the matter, with hopes of hearing more from the fire department. “It’ll be a hearing specifically about the video,” he says.
Corrections: Dorsey said the Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee, not the councilman himself, plans to call a hearing about the video.
The road where the fire department filmed one of its demonstrations is Cathedral Street, not Cathedral Avenue.
Baltimore Fishbowl regrets the errors.