Thursday, 11 May 2017

Fire Engine vs Bollard: Who's Going to Win

Something a little different this week and despite the slightly tongue-in-cheek title of this post, there is an interesting story to tell.

First, my thanks goes to the London Fire Brigade for trusting me with a spanking new fire engine, but sometimes in life, we just need to have a go at something to prove it works - more on that in a bit, but first a little background.

In the last few years, I've been able to work on some schemes which contain an element of filtered permeability designed to prevent access for through motor traffic. We know this is a vital piece of a wider approach to creating liveable neighbourhoods, but there is the issue of how we prevent or discourage motor vehicle access. I blogged about this a while back and in many respects this is an update.

As a sort of recap, we have moved from staggered barriers and gates to embrace the humble bollard (by we, I mean my team in the day job - lots of other people haven't got this far yet). We've kept it simple and have used the mantra of using odd numbers of bollards with 1500mm clear spacings. Our centre bollards will be of a removable type to allow maintenance and fire access. The spacing and the bollard width will always give at least 3100mm when the centre bollard is removed which is perfect for fire access.

On one particular scheme, I met with a representative of the local traffic police who had some concerns to discuss. One of these concerns was the use of a central steel bollard as shown on the above photo. The concern was that should it be clipped by a person cycling or riding a powered 2-wheeler, the outcome could be serious. The concern extended to the potential for a collision in the event the police were pursuing a suspect (powered 2-wheeler or car), although if it is getting risky, the police will stop the pursuit.

At this, point, one could suggest that a person fleeing the police deserve what they get and if they crash into a bollard and get hurt, then tough. However, as a designer (and from a local highway authority point of view) there is still a duty of care. From a sustainable safety point of view, then yes, there is a potential risk to law-abiding cyclists and so we should demand more from ourselves.

You might remember the above photo from my previous blog (and a tweet where I gave it a little wobble). The bollards are made by Glasdon and they are the Advanced Neopolitan 150 Rebound Impactapol units; and the centre bollard has the LockFast Socket option. I've no personal affiliation to Glasdon, but I have been a long time fan of the company and this is a perfect product for the application.

The arrangement was chosen because we can remove the centre bollard for access and if it gets destroyed, then we can swap it out for a new one (the outer bollards not generally being in the firing line). The Impactapol option allows fire engines to simply drive over the bollard as can be seen in this video from the manufacturer;

The reason I was interested in the product was because with the steel bollard, they are padlocked from removal using a standard fire brigade lock. Unfortunately, keys are readily available and in my area, there are locations where fire gates and bollards are readily opened/ removed (unlawfully) by people who have keys. The removable variant of this bollard needs a special key which is only available from the supplier (and so not readily available to the public).

The site in the photo above is actually at the end of a cul-de-sac and protects a little pedestrian area, although people can cycle through to some cycle parking. In reality, the fire brigade wouldn't actually need to go through, but it was a useful site for testing in a location where it didn't matter if the experiment went wrong.

You might also be interested in this video from the manufacturer showing a high speed collision with the bollard. Again, why should care about someone blasting through? Well, again, we try to keep everyone safe. Even if they are maniacs;

For many reasons, it took a while to arrange a fire engine to have a go at our installation. Despite my reckless post title, you can now see that this has all been tested and at a low speed, there was never a risk of damage to the fire engine;

OK, I've hinted enough, I made a little video of Fire Engine vs Bollard;

As you can see, it worked completely as planned. But that's not the end of the story. The idea of using the removable centre bollard was so the fire-fighters could remove it to drive through. It is often the case that in response to a call, the fire brigade wouldn't bother stopping to unlock gates or bollards as it is too fiddly and takes valuable time; they will go the long way around. However if the incident is large, they may need to take a secondary access and so will open up the closure.

This is not always the case and in the conversation with the crew who assisted us today, they cited some cases where they still opened up a fire gate because it was still quicker, but as one said "if it is 3am, dark and raining, it's a real pain to deal with fire gates and it takes time". 

There was also some scepticism about the collapsible bollards because if they could drive their fire engine over them, then so could anyone else if they knew what they were doing. Yes, this is absolutely true. In a normal car, driving through might damage it, but someone in a company van or truck might take the chance and if they go slowly they'll get away with it. 

Where we have installed a road closure of this nature, we would generally use traffic signs to give effect to the traffic order which should be in place (if we intend to enforce the restriction). If we closed the road with a fire gate, people opening it up for their own access are very clearly disobeying the closure, but it happens. 

This really is no different to using a collapsible bollard. If we have the right signs up, we can also use camera-enforcement and believe me, local people will soon report abuse. If we have someone doing this repeatedly, then this will need police involvement. The parallel here is the argument for staggered barriers on cycle routes to stop mopeds which we know doesn't work.

It might not suit every location or configuration, but the balance here is as follows;
  • Providing a physical deterrent to drivers,
  • Improving passive safety for cyclists who might clip the bollard,
  • Improving passive safety for people who might accidentally drive into the bollard,
  • Improving the passive safety of people being chased by the police,
  • Providing a simpler way for the fire brigade to get through a modal filter in an emergency.
For a wider roll out, I would suggest the white bollards with red reflectors to improve day and night conspicuity. Where used in a side road, then the bollards need to be set back so a fire engine turning in from the main road can "attack" the centre bollard straight on.

As often is the case in traffic engineering, there are compromises to be debated. In this case, we have a solution which ticks most of the boxes. Where we have abuse of the system, then this is more serious than contravening a traffic order (which at the basic level is probably not that dangerous in the context I have set out). We do get the potential for someone in the know to go through with covered number plates (it happens), but again, this is a more serious thing.

All in all, my colleagues and I were happy with the test as were the fire-fighters and their station officer. At the end of the test, they could see real value to their fire response times and from our point of view, it's a pretty cheap method of filtering. The bollards can take some knocks and abuse, but are cheap to swap. If a gate or fixed bollard is hit, then it can be far more expensive to repair or replace, so the maintenance guys are happy. Finally, it shows the value of local engagement of a key stakeholder and it's always worth using their local knowledge. So in Fire Engine vs Bollard: who's going to win? I think we all did on this one!

Update 14-5-17
Perhaps I should do more research before I post, but I found a very interesting Freedom of Information response from the London Fire Brigade to someone who clearly doesn't like the modal filters. There are two responses here and here.

In the second one, a statement was made by the LFB (beyond what is required in terms of releasing information;

I must first advise you – as I mentioned briefly in my acknowledgement – that some of the matters which you have asked me to review require an opinion of the Brigade, and not the provision of data we hold. Under FOIA, you only have a right to the data we hold.

Putting your rights under FOIA aside for a moment, I think it would be fair to say that road closures can cause delays to the arrival of LFB appliances at emergency incidents. Those closures would need to reflect the main traffic routes used by Brigade vehicles, and the extent of delay that might arise from the closure of minor (or side) roads, would depend on the numbers of incidents we expect to attend in the areas affected by the closure. 

Road closures are a frequently occurring feature of London’s infrastructure and, so far, they have never caused a detrimental delay to our emergency response. We know from analysis that the cause of most delay’s in our response is the time it takes for people to call the Brigade. An analysis of fires shows that on nearly half of occasions it takes more than 10 minutes from the start of the fire for the Brigade to be called (and it taking us less than 6 minutes, on average, to arrive).

This is one (big) scheme in one city and so local conditions may vary. However, there is information in the response that shows the LFB are on a steering group and there is definite two-way discussions going on with the council. It seems that the LFB is taking a pragmatic approach with this particular project and they don't have any fundamental issues.

One final point on fire access. Where fire gates or lockable removable bollards are being used, we would normally add a universal fire brigade padlock. The standard keys are available very easily (just Google it) and the sort of person to ignore a no motor vehicles sign and then drive over a bollard would happily avail themselves of a key (this definitely happens at a couple of places in my area).


  1. I know I've said before, but you need to get yourself to NAL (the retention socket people) for some, ahem, 'fact finding'. They let normal punters do this sort of thing to one of their products in their yard - after they've first run a JCB over it - in an attempt to destroy one (or at least stop it recovering). Good fun.

    Andy R.

  2. Road is not ‘closed’, merely permeable to walking and cycling—plus horsing, skating/ scooting and at least two subsets of motoring, given these bollards, etc. The motoring lobby language you so readily adopt reminds me of the police force in Enfield objecting to Armadillos at the edge of the carriageway, but not in the narrow new cycle lanes (advisory, with solid white line). Also the highway employees' craven capitulation rather than just reducing the carriageway width by 450 mm on each side of closely-spaced Tobies as any engineer worth their wages would have.

    1. The comment you link to refers to temporary traffic signs and "road closed" as a standard one. I rarely applies to pedestrians and provision for cycles is easy.

      I think I have defined the term properly at the beginning;

      "In the last few years, I've been able to work on some schemes which contain an element of filtered permeability designed to prevent access for through motor traffic."