The Oakland Fire Department is pushing back against local advocates' plans to reduce the width of streets. Credit: Amir Aziz

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Bicyclists and pedestrian advocates want the city to make some of Oakland’s roads narrower because it will slow vehicle traffic and improve safety by reducing collisions. Doing so could also create space for larger bike lanes, including those with physical barriers. But the fire department opposes these changes, saying they need wider streets to maneuver their trucks and equipment to fight fires and respond to other emergencies.

“It is necessary that we have this 26-foot wide street,” said Fire Marshal Felicia Bryant at an Oakland City Council meeting yesterday. “If we do not have it, then we cannot safely rescue an occupant who is stuck in their building with a fire.” 

The issue pits two different kinds of safety concerns against each other. Currently, the city’s fire code requires streets to be a minimum of 26 feet wide where building heights are 30 feet or taller. 

Fire department leaders say their trucks need all the space they can get to maneuver, reach fire hydrants, and use their tall ladders, which can extend up to 100 feet. And while Oakland fire trucks are 10 feet wide, they also sometimes use outriggers, which are additional legs that stabilize trucks and ladders so they don’t tip over, making the rig wider by as much as 19 feet. 

Narrower individual driving lanes are generally between 10 and 11 feet while wider lanes are about 12 or 13 feet. The small difference between them can actually have a big difference in road safety, according to several city planners we spoke to, including San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency staff engineer Kenya Wheeler, who also previously served on the city’s Bicyclist and Pedestrian Advisory Commission. 

Other cities like Portland and San Francisco have removed the wider road requirement from their fire codes. The National Association of City Transport Officials has said standard-sized fire trucks “require street widths and turning radii that encourage [vehicle] speeding and create unsafe streets.” 

After hearing from people on both sides of the issue, the council decided to put off any decision to change the fire code until January. The Bike and Pedestrian Advisory Commission is also considering holding a hearing on the issue at its Dec. 15 meeting.

Several council members seem willing to consider keeping the old code but made clear that changes to the streets are needed. At-Large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan said at Tuesday’s meeting that just because the 26-foot-width code has been in place for a long time, it doesn’t mean it has been a success for all Oakland residents. 

“Our roadways are a failure. People are dying every year being hit by speeding cars. And the requirement of excessively wide roadways perpetuates that and makes it harder and less safe for pedestrians to cross the street,” she said. 

OFD’s Bryant said at the meeting that her firefighters need the extra space of a wider street because Oakland has a lot of older buildings. A Bay Area firefighter who doesn’t work for Oakland but asked not to be identified because he was not approved by his agency to make a statement told The Oaklandside that firefighters worry about old buildings because they can collapse. 

“In a fire, you can have catastrophic failures. We want to ideally have a safe area between the fire truck and building that is about one-and-half times the height of the building,” he said. “If the building falls, it’s going to shoot out. We have to think about this potential collapse.” 

Street safety advocates want OFD to adopt their goals, in addition to concerns about accessing buildings

The Traffic Violence Rapid Response Team, which has been protesting since the summer for improved conditions on Oakland streets, has been leading the campaign to change Oakland’s fire code. Kevin Dalley, a member of Rapid Response, put together a policy worksheet to help Oaklanders and the City Council understand the issue better. 

“I’m asking the Oakland Fire Department to add to their mission and consider the safety of pedestrian cyclists and motorists when they review street design,” Dalley said at Tuesday’s meeting. 

According to Patrick Traughber, another Rapid Response member, cement barrier-protected bike lanes wider than six feet on streets have already been rejected by the city after objections from the fire department, even though OakDOT has set a policy of making bike lanes eight feet wide. 

Recently, when the city was in the planning stages of adding a wide bike lane on 14th Street, the fire department pushed back at the last minute, asking that the lane be narrowed. This angered bike advocates because it set back the construction timeline. Soon after, a speeding driver ran over and killed Dmitry Putilov, a deaf father of two who was bicycling on the street with his two children. The advocates believe his death could have been prevented if the street had a protected bike lane. City staffers have also told The Oaklandside that the fire department asked OakDOT to reject protected lanes on Telegraph Avenue for similar reasons, however, these were eventually built.

Dalley told The Oaklandside that it’s important to remember that removing the 26-foot rule from the code does not mean it would force the city to narrow every road. This change simply “would allow us to examine streets and buildings on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

OFD leaders say they’re already working with OakDOT and making some compromises

Oakland Fire Chief Reginald Freeman says his department fully supports bicyclist and pedestrian safety and is aware of how dangerous Oakland streets can be. He told The Oaklandside in an interview that firefighters often feel in danger on roads where there is excessive speeding, such as on International Boulevard. But he recommended the city maintain the 26-foot rule.

“Whether it be getting access to the fire department or being able to properly set up our ladder trucks without prohibiting traffic, even responding with the code today can be problematic,” he said. “It would be even harder with streets shorter than 26 feet.”

Freeman said OFD is working with the Department of Transportation to amend other parts of the fire code, however. Curb heights, for example, are now taller than they used to be to create safer streets for pedestrians, while still allowing fire trucks to navigate. When creating protected bike lanes, the chief said, OakDOT compromised by adding cutouts—spaces where the barrier is broken—so firefighters would have access points to buildings in an emergency. 

The city’s sole protected lane on Telegraph Avenue, which is nearly complete after eight years of work, has already been problematic for his firefighters, Freeman said. 

“The fire department was not consulted on that project and there’s certain areas, certain buildings that we can’t properly access in the event of a fire,” he said.

Warren Logan, the mayor’s former main transportation policy advisor and a supporter of narrower roads, told us he’s spoken to fire chiefs from other cities who are more accommodating. 

“They’ll tell you that modern building code has made putting out fires more of an internal exercise rather than a fire truck rolling up,” he said. “Think about any modern building you’ve been in. Fire doors. Smoke detectors. Fire retardant material. Sprinklers. We don’t put out our fires the way we used to.” 

Warren said he and other street safety advocates will ask the council to change the fire code to the state standard, which calls for a 20-foot wide road. The National Fire Protection Association also says 20 feet is the required minimum.

The local firefighter we spoke to said Oakland fire leaders’ concerns are valid. Smaller roads can delay crews from making it to the scene of a fire, especially when it’s a big fire and more trucks are required. More importantly, he said, is that traffic delays, which can happen in all types of roads, end up affecting response times more than anything else, including the width of the road. 

Ultimately, though, the firefighter told us, “fires get put out. We always figure it out.” 

Jose Fermoso covers road safety, transportation, and public health for The Oaklandside. His previous work covering tech and culture has appeared in publications including The Guardian, The New York Times, and One Zero. Jose was born and raised in Oakland and is the host and creator of the El Progreso podcast, a new show featuring in-depth narrative stories and interviews about and from the perspective of the Latinx community.