Firefighters Hit Roof Over Speed Bumps


They give peace of mind to traffic-weary residents and jolt the bones of rogue motorists whizzing down the street.

But as speed bumps become more popular on the American road, they have found a new enemy in firefighters and paramedics who say the devices slow their response to emergency calls.

Communities from Santa Monica to San Diego are struggling with the issue, while other cities such as Berkeley and Boulder, Colo., have placed moratoriums on new speed bumps until emergency response issues are ironed out.

In few places have the battle lines been drawn more clearly than in Coto de Caza, where the Orange County Fire Authority is demanding that the upscale, gated private community remove the nearly 30 speed bumps that dot the hilly streets.


Leaders of the homeowners association in the unincorporated area are balking at the order, even though the fire department threatened them with misdemeanor charges that could bring jail terms unless officials comply.

“People don’t realize we have 500 gallons of water inside those fire engines,” said Blake Garlin, a 23-year veteran firefighter who until recently worked at Coto de Caza’s station. “With that weight, we can’t take bumps very fast. We have to come to almost a complete stop.”

Fire officials emphasize that quick response is critical in any emergency and cite studies showing that speed bumps slow down fire engines.

“Seconds matter when you are talking about life and death,” said Capt. Jim Jacobs of the Los Angeles County Fire Department, which strongly discourages the use of speed bumps. “If you have a heart attack, the optimum [response] time is between four and six minutes. And now you are adding to it.”

Jacobs and others could not point to examples in which delays from speed bumps resulted in loss of life or property. But Capt. Scott Brown of the Orange County Fire Authority noted that it takes only about five minutes for a fire to burn beyond its flash-over point and quickly spread.

The issue is particularly relevant in Southern California, given its heavy dependence on the automobile. The region is also home to nearly 200 private communities such as Coto de Caza, many of which rely on bumps to enforce speed limits because police generally don’t patrol their streets.

“This is an issue that is going to get wider and deeper and bigger,” said Ed Blakely, dean of USC’s School of Urban Planning and Development, noting that Southern California leads the nation in the number of such communities.

The proliferation of speed bumps extends beyond private communities. The bumps are also part of a larger trend in public road management called “traffic calming,” which is fast becoming the predominant philosophy of transportation engineers.


The concept employs physical devices such as bumps, traffic circles, road medians and extended sidewalk chokers to better control--and slow down--vehicles, especially in residential areas.

A Growing Cry for ‘Traffic Calming’

In private communities, the bumps are installed and financed by homeowners associations. On public streets, municipal governments control where the devices are placed.

“It has gone from a handful of places to hundreds over the last five years,” said Reid Ewing, an urban planner and author of a Federal Highway Administration study on traffic calming due out later this year.


Speed bumps have become increasingly common on streets in Ventura County communities such as Simi Valley, despite occasional protests from some residents that the devices slow paramedics and firefighters.

Ventura County’s Transportation Department used to allow the fire department to veto any speed- bump requests. But in 1993, the county changed that policy because officials felt decisions should be made based on traffic engineering and not fire response concerns, said principal engineer Bob Brownie.

In cities with advanced programs, such as Seattle, Portland and Pasadena, traffic calming has been successful in diverting commuter traffic off residential streets and on to major thoroughfares.

But at what cost?


The city of Portland in 1995 conducted a study to determine exactly how much fire response was affected by traffic calming.

The study concluded that each bump adds as much as 9.4 seconds to emergency response times, depending on the type of fire truck and the size of the bump. Traffic circles added even more time, as much as 10.7 seconds.

Testers found that smaller emergency vehicles, such as rescue trucks, generally experienced the least delays. In some cases, the bumps caused no delays.

Larger fire trucks and engines generally experienced greater delays, and truck engineers complained the bumps damaged their equipment.


In Orange County, the Fire Authority conducted a study revealing response times in neighborhoods served by Fire Station 40 in Coto de Caza were not meeting department standards.

The department’s goal is a response time of five minutes or less for 80% of calls. By contrast, the Coto de Caza station was meeting that mark for only 22% of calls.

Firefighter Garlin recounted a particularly jarring experience two years ago in Dove Canyon, Coto’s neighboring community, which also has been ordered to remove its bumps. The developers had just installed a new bump on one of the streets, and it had not yet been painted.

“We hit that little puppy and we just flew,” Blake said.


Brown, the Fire Authority spokesman, said some local residents began raising concerns about the bumps last year, prompting the response-time study.

He said the department sympathizes with the communities’ need for traffic control, but “there must be another way.”

Seeking a Balance for Maximum Safety

Some residents agree and have suggested a compromise: removing the bumps from major streets but keeping them on smaller ones where children are most likely to play. The idea will be discussed today during a meeting between the homeowners association and Fire Authority.


Michelle Dales, waiting for a school bus with her 5-year-old son one recent morning, said speed bumps help control traffic but that having them on the main roads is probably overkill.

"[Drivers] usually speed up to 60 mph in between the bumps anyway,” she said.

Some of Dales’ neighbors, however, fear that without the bumps, speeding in their neighborhood will get worse.

“Speed bumps slow emergency vehicles, but it also slows down other people,” said John Zarian, president of Coto de Caza’s homeowners association.


Zarian and others see the bumps as their only protection against speeding cars.

“I worry because I know people speed already,” said April Orband, a five-year Coto de Caza resident and mother of three small children. “Cars come flying around the corner, and we have kids playing outside.”

Other communities are trying to head off conflict by bringing fire departments into the traffic planning process.

In Los Angeles County, the Department of Public Works began consulting with fire personnel before installing speed bumps a few years back. Now, Smith said, the county is trying other traffic-calming tools less detrimental to fire response, such as a “neighborhood speed watch program” in which residents are trained to use radar guns and write down the license plate numbers of speeding cars.


The issue of speed bumps is likely to spread to other parts of the country as traffic calming becomes more prevalent, Atkins said. Many cities resort to bumps because they are relatively cheaper: about $1,500 per device compared to $15,000 for a traffic circle, she said.

“It is a trade-off, but by making roads safer there will be less accidents and less calls for ambulances or other emergency services,” said Edward Reimborn of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Center for Urban Transportation. But when it comes to traffic, “everyone has an opinion.”


Slow Ride for Easy Street


A number of “traffic calming devices” are used to slow speeding cars using residential neighborhoods as shortcuts to major thoroughfares. Residents say the devices slow traffic. But fire officials say some of them--such as speed bumps, knuckles and traffic circles--increase emergency response times.