Anchorage

Loved by neighborhoods, hated by fire crews, speed bumps hit a roadblock in Anchorage

Anchorage residents may clamor for speed bumps to slow traffic in neighborhoods, but for firefighters rushing to burning buildings or heart attacks, speed bumps are a headache — sometimes literally.

"You hit your head even with the seat belt on," said fire marshal Cleo Hill. "It's pretty physically jarring to the staff inside the engine company."

In 2016, a change in fire codes gave Hill new authority over speed bumps, which are especially hard on big, fast-moving trucks — and the occupants inside. Hill has been flexing her power on proposed projects. As a result, city traffic engineers say, Anchorage speed bump construction has been halted.

There’s also a compromise in the works. Behind an old fire station in the Airport Heights neighborhood, traffic engineers are testing several sets of raised bumps with grooves in the middle that allow a wide-axle fire truck to pass through. Known as a “speed cushion,” it’s a design used elsewhere in the United States but hasn’t yet reached Anchorage.

Traffic engineers hope it will help re-start Anchorage's speed bump projects and ease the longstanding concerns from fire officials over firefighter safety and access for emergency vehicles.

"Speed humps have a long and tortured history in this town," said Stephanie Mormilo, the city traffic engineer.

When Mormilo started her job in 2011, she said, then-Mayor Dan Sullivan had eliminated the city's "traffic calming" program, the term for reducing the speed of cars and trucks in neighborhoods. The program lurched back to life in the next year or two, and Mormilo hired a community engagement director.

Anchorage community councils frequently include speed bumps on capital project wish lists submitted annually to the city. Bruce Roberts, the president of the Abbott Loop Community Council, said neighbors complain constantly of cars cutting through surface neighborhood streets to avoid stoplights.

At a recent Northeast Community Council meeting in Muldoon, a resident told a vivid story about witnessing a car hitting a neighbor. She pleaded for speed bumps.

After receiving such requests, city traffic engineers head out with radar guns and road tubes to count cars, record their speeds and figure out if the street actually has a speeding problem. If the engineers decide the project is necessary, it's given a priority for a grant.

Mormilo said engineers avoid recommending speed bumps for streets that see heavy daily traffic, or are the primary routes used by emergency responders to get into neighborhoods.

But when it comes neighborhood roads with lower traffic volume, it's less clear-cut, Mormilo said.

"How often are fire and emergency response having to go down streets, when speeding problems are on the street 365 days a year?" Mormilo said. "It's hard for me to say we should not do something, even if it might have a negative impact on the rare occasion they need to use the road."

Rick Irwin, the president of the Northeast Community Council, said he'd rather see fire trucks slow down than all vehicles driving fast.

Fire Capt. Tom Wescott, of Fire Station 5 in Spenard, said the opinions about speed bumps vary within the fire department. He said that in his view, poor road conditions, like ruts and potholes, make it tougher on fire crews. Spenard has a lot of speed bumps, but the station's experienced firefighters who drive the trucks are adept at avoiding them by taking alternate routes, Wescott said.

"It may be a little trade-off for some safety in the neighborhood, the kids and that," Wescott said. "We kind of adjust, make it work."

In April 2016, the Anchorage Assembly adopted an updated set of international fire codes. The new fire code said that traffic-calming devices, like speed bumps, needed the approval of the fire marshal.

[Increasing violence at downtown shelters puts Anchorage responders at risk, requiring backup for every call] 

Since then, Hill has vetoed several projects, referencing the new fire code. The code's aim is to encourage speed bump designs that accommodate emergency vehicles, Hill said. Hill also noted firefighters can be jostled when a fire truck drives over traditional speed bumps, though she said she wasn't aware of any worker's compensation claims resulting from a bumpy ride.

Hill recalled turning down one proposed project off of Boundary Avenue in Muldoon. Residents of an apartment building asked for speed bumps. But Hill concluded there was no other way for a fire truck to get to the apartments.

Mormilo said she understood the problem: Speed bumps translate into anywhere from an eight- to 20-second slowdown for a vehicle.

"When you're talking about a cardiac event, seconds can mean lives," Mormilo said. "It's a conversation both of impact to equipment, impact to personnel and impacts as far as response times go."

The city installed 13 speed bumps last summer in North Anchorage. This year, traffic engineers had planned to install speed bumps in Turnagain and Abbott Loop neighborhoods. Those are now on hold while traffic engineers work with fire officials on the "speed cushion" design, Mormilo said.

She noted in other U.S. cities, some traffic engineers, in response to similar conflicts with fire officials, have banned speed bumps outright. Others have adopted new designs, like the speed cushion.

Anchorage's speed cushions are expected to cost between $12,500 and $15,000 each, which includes signs and markings. That's a few thousand dollars more than a standard speed bump, according to Kris Langley, traffic safety division manager for the city. But Langley said it's helpful to have another tool for slowing cars, in addition to methods like raised intersections, roundabouts and radar speed signs, that fire officials generally support.

If testing goes well, the hope is to resume Anchorage's speed bump projects by next spring, with the new design, Mormilo said.

Devin Kelly

Devin Kelly was an ADN staff reporter.

Sponsored