After 9/11, the Bush administration pushed the PATRIOT act through congress — a wide ranging bill that gave the government all sorts of powers in the same of combatting terrorism. And who could argue with that? The United States had just been attacked, and at the time it was hard to argue against giving the government more power in the name of public safety.
However, at a local level, we suffer from the same dilemma — balancing what’s good for our city with ensuring “public safety.” Living in Los Angeles, you hear a constant barrage of sirens — police, fire, ambulance — and it seems like there is a police helicopter overhead throughout most nights. At a recent Mid City West Neighborhood Council meeting (where I serve as the Vice Chair) one of my fellow board members asked a representative from the Los Angeles Police Department how he could file a complaint about the incessant helicopters flying around at night that keep him awake at night. The officer seemed taken aback that someone would even question the helicopters, and explained that they don’t take complaints because the helicopters are assisting officers on the ground when dealing with a crime. This KPCC article from 2013 states the same thing. And how do you argue with that? Don’t we all want criminals stopped as quickly as possible? But, is it worth it to catch a criminal faster if it wakes up thousands of people in the process?
Then there is the nuance of street design. In older European cities, there is often narrow road design and sharper curves. And, yet, emergency vehicles function — they simply buy smaller ones.
As this Bloomberg article states: “Aerial ladder fire trucks used in major European and Asian cities can reach just as high, despite being only two-thirds as long and having only half of the turn radius as common American models.” It goes on to make an interesting point that the majority of time we are using fire trucks, it’s not for a fire (and therefore doesn’t require such a large vehicle): “In the U.S., only 3 to 5 percent of fire department calls nationally are related to building fires, according to the report. Dispatching a 80-ton fire-fighting vehicle to respond to a possible heart attack doesn’t necessarily make sense.”
At a very local level, LAPD and LAFD concerns have helped kill local road safety projects, like Uplift Melrose. It can be difficult to have these conversations in a public forum, because the moment you open your mouth, people against things like bus and bike lanes will seize on your stance and paint you as being “against public safety.”
As Angie Schmitt points out in this Streetsblog article, “Fire departments prefer wide traffic lanes and street corners designed for turning trucks — exactly the sort of conditions that lead to higher rates of traffic injuries and deaths.” We see this in Los Angeles, and it’s a big reason why our Vision Zero program is failing.
At some point, we need to have a rational conversation balancing the need for emergency services to function as efficiently as possible with the need for residents to be able to sleep well and have a peaceful and safe city.
Consider the following:
- A siren is a very useful tool for an emergency vehicle to get through traffic at 5pm on a Friday; at 3am on a Sunday, is the siren needed? How many people will be awoken by it and how many people will have their cortisol levels raised even though there is no traffic?
- If we want to build bike lanes that people feel safe using, the only way to do it is to reallocate some car space — the same space that emergency services use. And when it’s framed as “efficient emergency services” or “safe bike lanes” it’s a false choice — we can have both.
- What is the cost to our city to building our roads like highways, and to purchasing emergency vehicles larger (and more expensive) than they need to be? What is the right balance of prioritizing occasional emergencies versus roads that are safer for everyday life?
- What is the cost to our overall health as a society to have helicopters helping LAPD at all hours of night? Why are police helicopters so rarely heard in European cities and so frequently heard in American ones?
There is a real cost to our health that is glossed over in the name of public safety. As this Washington Post article states: “Those confronted with noise pollution, which causes disturbances to communication during the day and sleep at night, may have increased stress hormone levels… over time it can take a toll on the body — increasing cholesterol, blood pressure and heart rate. If this persists for years, then you have a risk of coronary artery disease, stroke, heart failure and arrhythmia.”
So what do we do? For starters, we need to start replacing our way-larger-than-necessary fire trucks with the still-capable-of-putting-out-fires trucks of our European and Asian friends. Secondly, I believe there should be more transparency and tighter guidelines about when LAPD gets to send up a helicopter between the hours of 10pm and 6pm. No, I don’t think it’s worth waking up 10,000 people to catch a non-violent offender faster. Lastly, I think we need to not let emergency services dictate road design — they should have input, but at the end of the day, the overall safety of a street should be the goal — not air tight optimization to accommodate emergencies. To be clear, I want emergency services to operate as efficiently as possible. But I also want there to be some balance between that and the greater good of our city.