FIREFIGHTING IN A NEW URBAN ERA

New Urbanism is more than an architectural fad. It is a decade-old movement to rejuvenate urban living centers and recreate them in the suburbs. It is the opposite of suburban sprawl. The Congress of New Urbanism is headquartered in Chicago; its leader is the former Mayor of Milwaukee, John Norquist. An article about Norquist in Chicago Magazine had this to say about New Urbanism: “CNU has spearheaded a movement to bring old-fashioned Main Streets, front porches, homes above shops, busy sidewalks, narrow streets, and mixed-income neighborhoods back to the cities and into the soulless suburbs.” New Urbanism affects firefighters in two different settings: (1) the rehabilitation of existing buildings and the construction of new structures in existing neighborhoods and (2) suburban developments currently being built with a New Urban style that makes them similar to century-old, inner-city neighborhoods.

THE AVERAGE CITY

Fort Wayne, Indiana, a community of roughly 250,000 people, has a very typical history. Like many cities, Fort Wayne has grown over the past few decades. As working-class families followed jobs and services to the suburbs, the city saw a predictable pattern of urban decay.


(1) Downtown Fort Wayne from the Wells Street bridge: A once-stagnant downtown is coming back to life. (Photos by author.)

Fortunately, we are seeing life in our downtown area again. Local government has provided a comprehensive plan to revitalize the inner core, and it is starting to pay off. I don’t have beers with our mayor after work, so I don’t know if he subscribes to New Urbanist ideas. But, even if the downtown revitalization plan isn’t labeled as New Urbanist, the general direction is very similar. There has been talk of loft living, new buildings with walk-up access instead of large parking lots, rehabilitation of vacant structures, and slowing traffic through retail corridors. There are other less tangible projects that are on the edge of my understanding, such as business incentives, wireless hot spots, and “Digital Downtowns.” All of this has a very New Urban feel.

CONCENTRIC RINGS OF SUBURBIA

Fort Wayne was founded on a river and developed rapidly around the turn of the century. It had a dense inner core that was the center of industry and commerce for miles around. The first ring surrounding this inner core was made of preautomobile neighborhoods. We know this because the single-family homes in this neighborhood do not have original garages, and many of the larger ones have carriage houses. The streets are narrow; some are still made of red brick. The stores and shops in these neighborhoods sit in the blocks mixed with taxpayers, small apartment buildings, row houses, garden apartments, and single-family units. This was the era of downtown factory zones when industry was developed close to a rail yard and people walked to work. These are the neighborhoods that New Urbanists would like to rebuild in the city and recreate in the suburbs.


(2) A recently purchased five-story building in downtown Fort Wayne; the owner plans to put lofts above the antique store on the ground floor.

As assembly-line production and trucking became more popular, five-story downtown factories became obsolete. When factories moved away from the downtown, a second ring of housing developed around them. The automobile industry- and government-subsidized mortgages allowed these neighborhoods to be almost entirely single-family homes. The houses are typically much smaller in scale and more cookie cutter in design than those in the first ring. Many of them have a detached garage in the rear for the single-family car, common in that era.

Many of these neighborhoods are connected to the downtown hub by a spoke. This spoke is easily recognizable in Ft. Wayne as a street lined with two- and three-story brick storefronts with living space above. The neighborhoods that surround these spokes are what New Urbanists and most mayors would like to rejuvenate. They fit the New Urbanist mold. The houses are on the streets; the garages are in back; and neighborhoods were originally self-sufficient, cozy, and pedestrian friendly.

Those under the age of 40 would consider the third ring of neighborhoods the suburbs. The neighborhoods necessitate almost total reliance on the automobile and the freeway system. Entire neighborhoods are entered and exited off one or two streets connected to major thoroughfares. These thoroughfares are then dotted with big box retailers and supermarkets. This kind of modern suburb is the antithesis of New Urban design. In New Urban circles, it would be called soulless and isolated, an auto emission-producing quagmire of blacktop and strip malls.

NEW NEIGHBORHOOD/OLD DESIGN

Not all new developments are what we know as modern suburbs. Mixed use, or old style, neighborhoods are starting to catch on in new developments. One fairly recognizable one is Seaside, Florida, where the movie “The Truman Show” was filmed. It is designed to be like the preautomobile neighborhoods that provide the inner concentric ring around most downtowns. The houses sit on a grid system and are within walking distance of stores and entertainment. This type of “old” neighborhood will actually benefit firefighters in some ways. Houses will be closer to the street, and the second floor will usually have windows on the street side. This will allow the initial attack hose to be a preconnect, and the structure will be easier to reach with aerial ladders. Just like old neighborhoods, the streets are narrow, and the proximity of the houses makes exposures a problem. Also, the rear access to many of these homes is only a footpath.


(3) Brownstones and homes share the boulevard in the Village of Westclay.

The Village of Westclay is a New Urban development in Carmel, Indiana. Not only does it have a traditional mixed-use design, but the homes are traditional too. The brownstones and the garden homes sit on the street as if they were in any downtown neighborhood. They are mixed in with apartment buildings and store fronts located around a centralized community building and park. These New Urban neighborhoods have some advantages over old downtown neighborhoods. The streets are wider, and they have better garage and alley access. The homes in Westclay have large garages, but they sit in the rear on a common alley. These alleys appear to be wide enough to allow access to an engine and possibly a truck. Also, these alleys are free of electrical wires, as the power is underground.

NEW AND OLD LOFTS

Whether New Urbanism is seen in new developments or the reuse of old structures, it will affect us as firefighters. In most midsize cities, loft living is still fairly uncommon; however, it is on the rise in some. Developers have slated several downtown commercial structures in Fort Wayne for loft living. One was a five-story hardware building, which will continue to have an antique store on the first floor. The other was part of a paint production facility on the near Northeast side.


(4) Back-alley garages in Westclay provide good access for apparatus, and electrical wires are underground.

Loft apartments present unique challenges for search and rescue, especially if you are geared to searching in single-family dwellings. Lofts are known for their wide-open spaces, which can make search and rescue complicated and dangerous. The Fort Wayne Fire Department has done extensive training in wide-open structures using the advanced oriented search technique1 with and without thermal imaging cameras. These techniques work, but they have to be practiced regularly to maintain proficiency.


(5) An original manufacturing site slated to be loft apartments in Fort Wayne’s near northeast section.

In recent years, we have seen faster and more frequent flashovers at residential fires. Many believe this is because of the high flammability of synthetic materials that fill most homes. In most single-family dwellings, flashover is fairly obvious because of the low ceiling height. (Suburban firefighters would probably tell a different story because of the number of cathedral ceilings they see.) High ceilings and wide-open spaces in any structure can hide signs of imminent flashover. Rollover and high heat could be difficult to read when ceilings are 12 feet above you instead of eight. Engine companies should be aggressive in finding the seat of the fire and do temperature checks as they advance. Exterior crews should not horizontally ventilate until the attack crew calls for it. Training emphasis on vent-enter-search from an aerial, forcible entry, flashover, and advanced oriented search all become applicable in traditional urban loft settings or in suburban loft reproductions.

NEW USE/OLD STRUCTURE


(6) “The Landing” in downtown Fort Wayne. Taxpayers such as this one likely will be occupied as New Urbanism takes hold.

Another type of urban reuse is the construction of standard one- to three-bedroom apartments inside old heavy timber buildings. We currently have two development efforts like this in Fort Wayne. One is in a four-story, turn-of-the-century factory that sits in the old downtown factory zone. The other is a four-story Catholic school building. Both are heavy timber and are being remodeled to hold single-family units. These apartments will have all of the same challenges as other apartment buildings, and more. Access is always a problem in apartment buildings, but these will probably have a less predictable floor plan than most housing projects. Anytime a structure is rehabilitated to be used for something other than its original intention, it probably will have a choppy layout. Good preplanning and a floor plan map in the first-due engine and the battalion chiefs’ cars are important.


(7) An 1860s heavy timber wagon wheel factory on Fort Wayne’s near Southside. Plans are to covert this structure to a social services center with offices and apartments.

Many income-adjusted apartments are built of concrete or brick or other fire resistant materials. This is helpful in preventing fire spread, especially if the occupant shuts the door on the way out. Even if the door is left open and fire gets down the hall a bit, fire spread is usually kept to a minimum. Fire spread could be a different story in these rehabilitated heavy timber hybrids. Undoubtedly, ceilings will be lowered to save on heating bills, leaving void spaces above (this despite the fact that the model building codes do not allow for the creation of void spaces in heavy timber buildings). We will need to pull ceilings and do investigative overhaul as soon as the fire is knocked down, to prevent fire spread in these hidden spaces.

NEW URBANISM IS COMING

Urban living is becoming popular again as major cities reinvent their downtowns; many midsize cities will follow suit. New Urbanism is a major force in that reinvention brings many positive attributes. An increased tax base and a return to owner-occupied structures instead of rentals can only be good for fire departments and communities. There is a downside, though. Urban departments not used to searching in loft-type structures may be taken by surprise. These departments would do well to train in advanced oriented searches, vent-enter-search from an aerial, and flashover. A rapid increase in loft living in old downtown industrial structures may also mean the reassignment of truck companies to cover these areas. Downtown companies should be aware of rehabilitation projects in their area. Preplan to identify void spaces and choppy layouts during construction.


(8, 9) The Sacred Heart Hospital structure, in Garrett, Indiana, was remodeled to provide income-adjusted apartments.

Urban living, without the urban societal ills, is attractive to the upper-middle class. New Urban design will continue to gain popularity in the suburbs as gas prices rise and traffic congestion increases. Suburban firefighters will need to educate themselves in how to fight fire in more densely packed neighborhoods like the Village of Westclay. Access to these structures may not be as easy as kicking in the front door, and exposures will be closer. Also, departments used to performing vertical ventilation with ground ladders may need to reconsider truck company placement at the fire scene.


(9)

New Urbanism can seem ethereal as a development concept, but the brick-and-mortar aspects of it are very real. It is about density of population, pedestrian neighborhoods, and multiuse occupancies. Recognizing this concept in your area is the first step in preparation. Suburban and urban firefighters alike should keep their eyes peeled for New Urban developments and rehabilitation projects in the neighborhoods they protect.

Endnote

1. “Searching Smarter, Part 1: The Basics”; “Searching Smarter, Part 2: The Oriented Search”; and “Searching Smarter, Part 3: The Advanced Oriented Search”; John (Skip) Coleman, Fire Engineering, February, March, April, respectively, 2001.

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