Fire Department sounds alarm on pedestrian safety measure near school

Schoolchildren will be safer crossing the street near an elementary school in the Portola district, but in return the intersection will have a new hazard: fire trucks swerving into oncoming traffic.

With an estimated two to three pedestrian-vehicle collisions every day in San Francisco, city traffic planners and elected officials are renewing calls to make streets safer.

“We have a crisis in our city… and I don’t use that term lightly,” said Supervisor Scott Wiener, adding that there were roughly 1,000 pedestrian-vehicle accidents in 2013. “We’ve had a string of very, very tragic accidents.”

But on the question of how to best solve this crisis, traffic planners are continuing to butt heads with The City’s first responders.

A common safety tactic is the construction of “bulb-outs,” in which the four corners of a crosswalk are extended into the street, usually at the expense of a few parking spots.

“We support pedestrian safety – we’re the first responders,” said Fire Lt. Mindy Talmadge, adding that the department has been “vilified” for voicing concerns on pedestrian safety.

“We don’t want to be the cause of a pedestrian fatality,” she said.

Bulb-outs that jut out 6 feet into the intersection of Bacon and Goettingen streets near E.R. Taylor Elementary School – where up to 40 percent of students walk or ride bikes to school, according to pedestrian safety advocates – were approved for construction Tuesday by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Bulb-outs reduce the distance a pedestrian needs to cross the street, but they also narrow the roadway. Streets need to be at least 20 feet wide in order for emergency vehicles to pass through safely, and 26 feet if a ladder fire truck has its outriggers deployed.

The Fire Department asked traffic planners to reduce bulb-outs to 5 feet but were rebuffed. As a result, once the bulb-outs are built, Bacon and Goettingen will become too narrow for a large fire truck to make a turn without either driving onto the bulb-out or crossing into the oncoming lane of traffic, according to Talmadge. Both options are unsafe tactics.

That could lead the Fire Department to be held at fault in an accident and cited by the Police Department, a concern that fire officials have raised with transit planners before, SFMTA director Ed Reiskin said Tuesday.

Police have yet to issue a citation to a fire vehicle for crossing a median, police said. Emergency vehicles responding to an alarm are allowed to drive in the opposite lane under state law.

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