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Trainer’s Corner: Fire protection and the shape of cities

Fire protection and the shape of cities

December 7, 2007
By Donal Baird


firesidebairdEarlier this year the world of town planning marked the passing of one Jane Jacobs, a Toronto resident who was famous around the world despite her lack of formal qualifications in the field. This in spite also of the fact that she was often very critical of that profession. She was credited with having a significant effect on the planning of cities. Jacob's cause was the idea that a successful city was a conglomeration of happy neighbourhoods and that the inner core plus a subdivided sprawl of uneven development was undesirable. Her ideas influenced many cities to make an effort to control the disconnecting of city populations by far flung sprawl and freeway barriers running through them. The effect of this difference is significant in the municipal fire protection challenge.

The traditional city before the post-World War II era had a solid central core surrounded by rings of increasingly lighter congestion. This had been dictated by transportation needs before the age of the automobile. These central cores featured congested multi-storey buildings having numerous problems of combustibility and heavy exposures, both internal and external. Surrounding the commercial core was the warehousing and manufacturing area and beyond that the congested lower class residential district where the people who worked there lived.

Many disastrous conflagrations occurred in these conditions, with the result that fire departments concentrated fire suppression forces in those more central districts. Fire stations with two pumper companies were a feature.

The flight to the suburbs in the 1960s and 70s left many cities with dead downtowns and disconnected suburbs.  For the fire department the replacement of inner core congestion by parking lots and detached highrise buildings meant fire companies could be moved out to the new districts. Calgary was a good example of this. In a rapid growth period around the 1960s, the built-on area doubled, but the total number of needed fire companies remained the same.


The attraction of living in the centre of things, with the services and easy commuting of being downtown, has been fed by a recent change of thinking by many city dwellers.

Condominium living has helped produce infill in the central cores.

Jane Jacobs pushed the importance of neighbourhoods as a catalyst for improvement and progress in social and economic values. Shunning reliance on theory, she believed in getting out and looking at problems firsthand. We can only agree with this. The work of fire and police departments promoting public safety programs such as neighbourhood policing and fire safety education events involves the same thinking. The incidence of clusters of highrise dwelling units scattered about the outer commercial satellite districts becomes part of a neighbourhood objective by planners. For the fire service trying to provide suppression and other coverage there can be a problem concentrating appropriate forces in such scattered locations. The same problem occurs for water supply. Securing large fire flows around the outskirts is more difficult than feeding a central core alone.

Many cities have gobbled up suburbs with ideas of securing economies of scale, only to get indigestion trying to replace or assimilate volunteer fire departments. In others, solutions have been found in acceptance of composite staffed departments. Halifax, Montreal and Toronto are good examples of where digestion of a number of fire department cultures has been slow, but with patience seems to be succeeding. But, opinions differ on the value of such large emergency service entities. Past studies suggested total amalgamation is not the only answer to protection of widespread populations. In any case, a city of Jane Jacobs' built-up, successful neighbourhoods is probably a good milieu for sound fire and other emergency services. 

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