Fire Department Access, Part 2: Roadway Materials and Maintenance

As discussed in Code Red’s prior Insights on fire department access, roadway dimensional criteria are critical to the design of a project to ensure responding apparatus can access a site.  This blog will review the material and maintenance criteria of these roadways as outlined in 527 CMR 1.00:  Massachusetts Comprehensive Fire Safety Code.  How does this apply to the design and lifetime maintenance of the roadway?

In designing fire department access roads, it is important to consider any existing buried structures such as culverts, pipes, electrical duct banks, and even septic tanks. It is important to ask yourself, can these structures support the significant weight of a fire apparatus? Weather conditions such as heavy rainfall or freezing temperatures can quickly change the drivability of the road and will have an impact on the materials used to construct the roadway. For example, if a road, located in a valley that has historically flooded in heavy storms, is to be designed as a fire department access road, selecting dirt as the finish surface material will likely result in the road’s inability to support a fire department vehicle when the dirt’s load bearing capability is reduced in a storm. A material such as asphalt with sufficient thickness of material below the surface will be better at maintaining its load bearing capabilities.

During the design of fire department access roadways, the loads imposed by jacks, outriggers, and stabilizers for aerial ladder trucks is often overlooked. These stabilizers are designed to be capable of supporting the full load of the vehicle, which will result in the weight of the vehicle becoming concentrated on the jacks or outriggers. For example, a gravel road may be capable of supporting a fire department vehicle traveling on ten tires, however, when the aerial ladder and associated stabilizers are needed, the gravel may not be capable of supporting the concentrated load of the stabilizers. This can put the ladder truck at risk of sinking into the ground or tipping over.

The maintenance over the life of the roadway should also be considered during the of fire department access roadway. For example, selecting permeable pavers with grass as the top surface of the roadway might be advantageous from an aesthetic perspective, and may even be capable of supporting the load of a fire department vehicle. However, during the winter months when snowfall occurs, the pavers are difficult to plow. If the plow is set too high off the ground, it will leave residual packed snow that will turn to ice and create a hazard to the responding fire apparatus – and anyone else using the roadway. If the plow is set too low, it can rip up the pavers and grass and require repair. The same grass roadways can also blend into the adjacent grass during the summer months, creating visual difficulties for the responding fire department personnel to locate the boundaries of the road.

Regardless of the road surface, fire department access roads must be maintained as drivable throughout the life of the building. All road surfaces – concrete, asphalt, gravel, and even crushed clam shells – require ongoing maintenance. Excessive cracking or ruts can indicate failure of the subgrade, and annual freeze-thaw cycles can cause potholes, frost heaves, and other damage that can prevent a fire engine from using the roadway.

While the design and maintenance of fire department access roads only comprises a few short sections in 527 CMR 1.00, there are large implications for the project that can result from not providing access in an approved way. Careful planning and an open discussion with the fire official can mitigate many of the challenges that fire department access roadways can bring.

Our next post will focus on the proximity of the fire department access road to a building.  If you have questions on fire department access compliance, please reach out to our office at info@crcfire.com to find out how we can assist.