Planners: Don’t try drawing this at home!

Morningside Apartments, Fairfax Co, Virginia, January 2015


I think it’s established that I am a fan of the fire service.  The service has its challenges, to be sure, and many departments aren’t handling that challenge well, at least in my opinion, but that’s not my point.

Here, it was planners that provided the challenge.  Lives were not lost in this incident but only by hard work.  I guess I should say that it was the developer who didn’t help matters, but somewhere along the way, someone from the planning department signed off on this.

When I first saw this the other day, I thought “Man, why didn’t they just throw the stick from the truck?  Or at least bring the ground ladders from a closer point?”  “Throw the stick from the truck” is Boston-ese for “raise the aerial device from the ladder truck”.  Then I looked up the location on Google Maps and found why.

In order to get to the roof (to cut holes and vent smoke and heat) or to get to windows (to rescue occupants or get to the seat of the fire), the ladder truck will generally pull up in front of the fire building, drop the outriggers, and raise the ladder to where it needs to go.  If there is no access for the ladder truck, then ground ladders are used as in the video.

In the image below, the fire building is outlined in yellow and the first-arriving fire apparatus are the red stars.  The firefighter with the helmet cam in the video pulls his two ground ladders from the truck at the third star; ground ladders from the other two units  having already been pulled and deployed.  (Note that I am not at all familiar with this area, but the various Google imagery matches the video clip.)

Morningside Apartments, Fairfax Co, Virginia via Google Maps –,-77.1433142,120m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0xdfd9ce54d4e74689 – North is UP.


The problem here is that the ladder truck could only get to one single corner of the 200′ x 50′, 3-story apartment.  Note that the parking lot does not extend in front of the fire building.  Any possible use of the lawn for staging of fire apparatus — which is not always possible where there is no hard surface of any kind — is blocked by a tree.  In fact, except for that one corner of the parking lot, there is no vehicular access to the building at all, on any side.

The desire to have green space everywhere is one I share.  However, vehicular access to all sides of the building must be considered.  This vehicle access does not mean having to provide a paved roadway open to all vehicles.  It might mean a gravel path  (constructed in a way that it would support a 25- or 30-ton aerial ladder truck) with non-emergency vehicle access prohibited.  At least one side of the building should have access for vehicles.  There are surely recommendations for this type of access somewhere – if you know where, leave a comment and I’ll add a link.

Bottom line is that it’s unacceptable to design a complex in such a way that firefighters are forced to carry equipment (and drag hoses) for hundreds of feet from the closest vehicle access point.  Nobody died because of poor design in this instance but it’s easy to see how someone could have.