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Community Planning: Ensuring What You Need Will Be There When You`re Called

Preincident planning of commercial and industrial properties is an important function for the fire and emergency service. Planning for apparatus access and ensuring that essential facilities are properly located means your department needs to be involved well before construction starts.

Typically, when a significant new building or building complex, such as a shopping center, is in the planning stage, several reviews take place. A site plan review is generally required by the local planning or zoning department. This is the time to look at plans and provide input on fire lanes, hydrant and FDC locations, and other features of the site that will ultimately affect your department's ability to respond to an emergency. Get to know your planning and zoning officials and make sure they understand your needs and concerns.

The International Building Code specifies the maximum height and area for buildings based on a combination of proposed use (such as assembly, business, storage) and construction type (fire-resistive, ordinary, combustible). The maximum areas specified in the code can be increased if sprinklers are installed or if additional fire-department access is provided. No credit is given for the first 25% of accessible perimeter, but anything beyond that will allow for an increase in the proposed building's allowable area.

The building official in your locality is responsible for reviewing and approving construction plans; he or she can be a valuable asset. When these plans are in the review stage is the time for your department to get involved.

During review of the placement of fire lanes for emergency-vehicle access, several things should be considered. The International Fire Code and other model codes contain some general requirements, but significant latitude is given to local officials in determining adequate access.

A poor layout can result in future enforcement issues and frequent violations. Ideally, fire lanes should be laid out so there will be minimal incentive for vehicles to park there.

Be aware of the building's intended use; for example, customers of grocery stores and home-improvement centers often want to pull to the front of the store to load their purchases. Planning for customer loading areas before construction takes place will reduce problems later.

Similarly, businesses receive deliveries on a daily basis: merchandise, office supplies and the daily mail. Where will these delivery vehicles park? If a designated loading area isn't provided, they're likely to park in the fire lane.

Fire lanes must be designed with adequate width and turning radius for the largest vehicle you have. To reduce the need for backing, dead ends should be limited to 150 feet in length or should be provided with an approved turning space. The paved surface should be designed to support the weight of your heaviest apparatus. Overhead wires and other obstructions should also be considered when evaluating access to the site.

The Public Works department will have input to the configuration of site entrances from the street. Coordination with this agency will ensure that the needs of the fire department are taken into account when decisions are made about turn lanes, medians and traffic patterns. The Public Works engineers can be an invaluable resource to help in proper roadway design.

The water department will be involved in review of any water system improvements associated with a proposed development project. Be aware that many water utilities require that hydrants be installed to meet specific needs of the water system, including hydrants at dead ends of water mains for flushing and at high and low points in the piping system. These hydrants may not be appropriately located for firefighting purposes. The water system staff will be able to help you determine the adequacy of the water supply based on anticipated fire flow and can make suggestions about optimal system layout.

Another area where coordination and advanced planning with other agencies can help in an emergency is preparation for severe weather. For example, what assistance can you get if a storm brings down a large number of trees, resulting in road closures? The public works or highway department will have primary responsibility and should have a plan to get the roads reopened, but you should understand this plan and the priorities the department has established.

You should also be provided with the department's emergency contact information in case you need assistance with an emergency response. Make sure your agency is included in the distribution of their emergency callback schedule. Ideally, they'll have contracts in place with specialized debris removal contractors so that the damage from severe storms can be addressed as quickly as possible.

Knowing the responsibilities and capabilities of the local and state government agencies in your area can pay dividends. Knowing the key people in those agencies and having them understand your department's needs will ensure that help will be there when you need it, before and after the emergency.

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