Asked for ‘demonstrable progress’ on fire code issue with bike lanes, BCFD makes a home movie

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The driver of a tiller struggles to get in the driver’s side door on Maryland Avenue near 28th Street. Screenshot from Baltimore City Fire Department video.

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.

A firefighter deploys a tiller’s outrigger on Maryland Avenue near 28th Street. Screenshot from Baltimore City Fire Department video.

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.

Firefighters watch as units demonstrate the use of a ladder outside the Severn Apartments in Mount Vernon. Screenshot from Baltimore City Fire Department video.

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.

Ethan McLeod
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Ethan McLeod

Senior Editor at Baltimore Fishbowl
Ethan has been editing and reporting for Baltimore Fishbowl since fall of 2016. His previous stops include Fox 45, CQ Researcher and Connection Newspapers in Northern Virginia. His freelance writing has been featured in Baltimore City Paper, Leafly, DCist and BmoreArt, among other outlets. He enjoys basketball, humid Mid-Atlantic summers and story tips.
Ethan McLeod
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16 COMMENTS

  1. Instead of firing the city worker who assaulted someone at a public meeting last month (I saw it happen), BCFD is playing Mean Girls. Bike lanes belong in a 21st century city. Grow up.

    • When it’s your property damaged, and possibly family members in a burning dwelling…. and the apparatus is not able to get to the scene in a timely manner, you might change your mind.

  2. People don’t take fire protection seriously until someone dies. I’m not sure what the council member is talking about when he says that type of truck would not be used at a fire in that area. A 10 story building needs a ladder truck. That is just willful ignorance.

    • Because there are no 10 story buildings there, that’s why that type of truck would not be used on that street. There are just 2 and 3 story rowhouses.

  3. “When it’s your property damaged, and possibly family members in a burning dwelling…. and the apparatus is not able to get to the scene in a timely manner, you might change your mind.”

    Something like 80 percent of Baltimore streets are not compliant with this code because the city allows parking on both sides of the street. Most of those streets DO NOT EVEN HAVE BIKE LANES.

    Would you go to bat to have parking removed from one side of every street in Canton, Fells Point or Federal Hill in order to allow the fire department to have the access it says it needs? I bet your tune would change if your block lost 50 percent of its parking. All bike advocates want is the rules to be applied uniformly, or changed to reflect the reality of our city.

  4. Wow ! I didn’t know Mr. Dorsey was such an expert on fire apparatus and the placing of same in an emergency situation. He should leave the CFD and and his competent Chief of Operations make the proper decisions to protect the citizens they are sworn to oath to protect.

  5. Retired from Baltimore City, and sadly on many streets at many times there is not room for Fire Apparatus to pass amd set up safely. Winter time is tje worst, there have been times I have gotten to the scene of a incident, and could not exit the vehicle, and they were not streets with bike lanes. Maybe if the so-called Councilmen would drive the trucks, put jacks down maybe they would understand. Each response is unique and has its challenges om city streets. As a biker, I would never bike in Baltimore, however I have riden in other cities with no issue. Baltimore is unique with the streets chosen as bike lanes, my thought, they should have chosen smaller out of the way streets. The comment that certain trucks would never respond there…..vehicles run all over the city to serve the public. Your local firehouse could be on a incident, and units from other areas would respond from other areas of the city.

  6. I think we can have both. We need to choose where to have bike lanes and at the same time, we need to respect the fact that the NFPA codes were adopted to protect people. This ladder truck actually fits in the fire house and is used daily and is one of the busiest trucks in the country. You just cannot pull a truck in an alley and throw the aerial . It doesn’t work like that. Until you have actually pulled up on a house having people hanging out the window screaming for help — to see the aerial used to save them … well you should be making a comment about the code. So we are saying a bike lane is more important then someone’s life — really? Maybe Brittany should grow up…willing to have what they want without seeing how it will affect the livelihood of someone trapped in a fire.

    • The could have just bought narrower trucks that fit our roads that were built a century before these trucks were even designed. I’ve read that they exist other cities buy them. If the fire truck is too big for our streets then it cannot be “one of the best trucks in the country.” SHame on the Fire Department for doing such a poor job of getting the “right tool for the job.”

  7. Thank you for the article and for the forum in which to express opinions, Fishbowl, and especially thank you for bringing the BCFD study to light — this is a major safety concern. As a resident of Roland Park, I have attended almost every community meeting concerning the “cycle track” that has been constructed on Roland Park. There are many issues with this latest street design, too many to enumerate here, but the one question that never gets answered for me is the question of safety. The current design is not safe for: the cyclists (trapped between parked car doors and the curb in a space consistently filled with debris); the parked cars (people trying to exit directly into lanes of traffic on Roland); or the drivers (the lanes are too narrow as they currently are drawn and there is NO margin for error with the parked car lane). The latest design involves changing Roland Avenue to ONE automobile lane going in either direction (the rest of the street would be for a bike lane and the parking lane — this feels like the death of common sense. If there is an emergency, there is no place to pull over to let the emergency vehicle pull past. It also shuts down a major artery of our city leading from the county to the downtown areas. And even if one pretends not to care about all of the Baltimoreans who are trying to get to work every day and night, there are literally thousands of families involved with the five schools in Roland Park (not counting the smaller church schools), whose commutes will also be adversely affected. I am all for safe bike travel, but there are other ways to accomplish that goal.

  8. Awk,
    You are wrong. We have the right apparatus. We have urban engines and trucks. Fire apparatus must meet NFPA standards for safety too and with that comes a lot of standards. Once again, someone who is more interested in having what they want at the sacrifice of safety for others.

  9. Sounds like the FD made a great argument for getting rid of on street parking in those areas where street width is a problem. You could replace the on street parking with low curb protected bike lanes that the outriggers could clear before being locked down.

    That solves teh bike lane need and the need claimed by the FD for useable width.

  10. A truck Co is dispatched on every fire box. It matters not if it’s a 10 story building or a two story row house a truck Co is vital in fire operations. Mr Dorsey is Ill informed and reckless with his views on fire fighting. He hasn’t a clue. It would be a great idea fot him to learn the operations of truck companies and the job the best firefighters in the country do on a daily bases. What an empty barrel he is.

  11. I feel it’s time to Vote out everyone in City Hall. Because you don’t put Bikes over People’s Lives. But hopefully iut will be them in City Hall who loses Love ones or Property! It is time for them to go. They don’t care about us. Why should we care about them. They have forgot that they work for us. And not us for them!

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