By Dom Nozzi
What sorts of questions should be asked of candidates who are seeking to become the new fire chief in your community?
Despite the conventional wisdom, it is not asking whether the candidate is familiar with the latest fire trucks. Or whether the candidate is courageous in putting out fires.
No, the most essential questions center around whether the candidate has a philosophy that centers around the broader question of life safety, rather than the much more narrow question of fire safety.
As shown by a study done by Peter Swift, widening roads (or keeping existing roads excessively wide) is often justified to promote fire safety, because it is claimed that wider roads reduce fire truck response times. But the Swift study conclusively showed that such wider roads result in less overall public safety, because the increases in injuries and deaths due to wider roads far exceeds the reduction in injuries and deaths due to faster response times. A key for public safety, then, is to not narrowly focus on a subcategory of safety (in this case, fire safety), but to instead aim to improve overall life safety.
Given this, the most important questions that a community should ask fire chief candidates would be:
1. What are your thoughts about reducing the size of fire trucks?
This question is crucial because the now gargantuan size of trucks used in most cities means that our fire chief, perhaps more so than the traffic engineer, isprofoundly dictating — every time she or he decides to purchase a big truck — that our neighborhood and arterial streets will be monstrous in width in order to “safely” allow passage by the big trucks at high velocities.
The (unintended?) result is more dangerous, high-speed community streets filled with reckless, inattentive drivers, and lower neighborhood quality of life. Why? Because motorists tend to drive at the highest speeds that can be driven while feeling safe and comfortable. And when streets are over-designed for excessive widths and other geometries, motorists are enabled to drive a higher speeds (as well as driving more inattentively).
2. What are your thoughts about reducing a bloated fire department budget?
A bloated department budget sub-optimizes the services of that department and starves other important community services such as recreation, social services, environmental protection, and street design.
3. What are your thoughts about minimizing the use of emergency vehicle sirens?
In nearly all cities, emergency vehicle sirens are out of control. Sirens are used excessively because of irrational fear of crashes with cars, a hysterical fear of lawsuits, and the endless drive to reduce vehicle response times, not to mention the psychological benefits of importance, excitement and power that some firemen feel when they sound the fire horns as much as possible. Given these factors over the course of the past century, excessive siren use escalates continuously in a never-ending race to have the loudest and most frequently used fire sirens.
Those of us who have experience living in a town center are more exposed than others to the jangled nerves associated with the 24/7 wailing of sirens, helicopters, flashing emergency lights, and racing emergency vehicles that bombard most all town centers. The experience of living in a town center, due to the out of control emergency vehicle problem, is one of feeling like you are living in a war zone. Due to the unpleasantness of such a state of affairs, many throw up their hands and flee to the expected peace and quiet of the suburbs, thereby undermining extremely important community objectives regarding the fight against sprawl. If communities (justifiably) strive to encourage more downtown residential development, why are we chasing folks out of downtown by creating a sleep depriving, frenzied, stressed ambience downtown?
True leadership means insisting that fire chiefs abide by over-arching community objectives such as public safety and quality of life. For fire chiefs, that means that the person a community hires must be someone who enthusiastically supports the need for smaller fire trucks, a more modest fire department budget, and a significant reduction in siren use.