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Safety versus Security in Fire Protection Planning
The Case of Fire Access Roadways
By Charles G. Oakes, PhD

Seeking Conceptual Clarity

When Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJ) have to create and apply situation-specific standards based on the Fire Code, how we define safety and security will determine site design requirements and their impact on first responder responsibilities.

It takes only a casual review of today’s literature referencing issues of safety and security to see that the two terms frequently are used interchangeably. They often are found in the same sentence as if to imply a distinction. Or is it a redundancy when, in fact, distinctions fail to be made? This unfortunate practice might not be of concern when projects are simple. But for larger projects a disservice results for teams involving fire protection engineers, architects, fire marshals and other Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs), contractors, and the clients themselves.

When diverse actors are involved in planning and executing a project, we are dealing with system-concerns. In the absence of clear definitions of safety and security, ambiguity works its way throughout the entire system.

The Whole Building Design Guide, in its “Plan for Fire Protection,” provides an opportunity to elaborate on safety and security. The WBDG advocates that all stakeholders need to collaborate to achieve performance-based design solutions.1

Our goal is to show that a simple and distinguishing definition of safety and security in planning for fire protection, with reference to fire access roadways, aids in the selection of security options that expedite a quicker return to safety conditions following the necessary removal of security barriers in order to mitigate a fire threat.

This article has four parts:

  • Generic Definition of Safety and Security
  • Definitions Applied to Fire Access Roadways
  • Whole Building Design Guide (WBDG) for a Fire Protection Plan
  • Balancing Safe and Secure Design Requirements—The Case for Bollards

Generic Definitions of Safety and Security

Safety. Traditional safety science has a long history going back to early in the 20th Century beginning long before security science. Safety practices focus on protection from natural and man made risks. They are applicable to people at work, residents in their homes, employees in commercial or public buildings, to out-of-doors areas, and to consumer products of every description. Safety is seldom perfect and all encompassing. There is therefore some element of risk or a standard of insurance. In this, safety measures are taken to reduce risk.

Incidental internal challenges to safety can be physical (e.g., blocked emergency exits, compromised chemical storage, structural design defects, inadequate locking systems, slippery floors), social and psychological (e.g., age or gender discrimination), financial (e.g., computer failure, mission or process loss), political (e.g., harassment), or occupational (e.g., mold or asbestos contamination). Taking these into account a generic definition looks like the following:

Safety involves whatever contributes to maintaining the “steady state” of a social and physical structure or place in terms of whatever it is intended to do. Safety connotes stability over time, continuity of function and reliability of structure.

The content of a “steady state” of a place, person or function changes from one situation to another. It can be operationally defined in terms of an organization’s vision and mission statements, personnel policies, and operations manuals. Hospitals, K-12 schools, recreational parks, department stores, colleges and universities, banks, and military installations all differ in what is necessary to make them safe. But our definition with focus on a situation-specific “steady state” applies equally to all. This lays the basis for what constitutes security, which is to say that, the definition and content of security derives from the definition and content of safety.

Security. Drawing from the definition of safety, then:

Security is the process or means of delaying, preventing and otherwise protecting against external or internal dangers, loss, criminals, and other individuals or actions that threaten to weaken, hinder or destroy an organization’s “steady state,” and otherwise deprive it of its intended purpose for being.

Definitions Applied to Fire Access Roadways

Fire is a common threat to an entity’s safety. This is true, regardless of its source (internal to the entity or introduced externally by arson, lightening or explosion). Section 503.1 of the 2006 International Fire Code (hereafter the Code) requires that one or more fire apparatus access roads contiguous to a structure or place (such as a trail) be present and maintained. Because the access road is a required element built into the entity’s original design, it is one element among many of a safety plan.

Section 503.4 of the Code also mandates that access roadways shall not be obstructed in any manner, including the parking of vehicles. In order to assure optimum safety—i.e, an unobstructed roadway—Sections 503.5-6, at the discretion of the Code Official, allows for security gates and barricades to prevent unauthorized vehicles from entering and parking on the roadway. In this way safety and security enjoy an intimate partnership. A further requirement in 503.6 is that where security gates and barricades are installed, they shall have an approved means of emergency operation and remain operational at all times. Hence, security design is integral to safety’s steady state!

WBDG’s Plan for Fire Protection

The WBDG Safe Committee recommended a Performance-Based Design for a fire protection plan. Because of the complexity of issues involved in fire protection, planning for it involves an integrated systems approach. This requires a creative and efficient integration of code requirements with other safety measures inclusive of design strategies to achieve desired levels of access, evacuation, egress, recovery, etc.

Complex systems dictate a consortium approach—the involvement of all stakeholders: owners, engineers, architects, and Authorities Having Jurisdiction (AHJs)--to achieve performance design solutions. The design team addresses requirements for: building codes, construction, egress, fire detection and notification, fire suppression, emergency power/lighting/exit signage, and special protection.

Site requirements are usually addressed earlier in the planning process than those listed above. We address these as a prelude to our last section. Quality site design integrates safety performance requirements with fire department access, suppression, stand-off distances and site/building security. In these the fire marshal is the supreme AHJ of record and s/he adjudicates application of the fire codes. In a word, site requirements, which address safety, through the person of the AHJ are coordinated with security measures.

Since 09/11, design and engineering professionals have added the concept of Concentric Circles of Protection (CCPs) to their site planning in order to integrate safety and security throughout a client’s campus, to ensure that fire departments can still access sites and buildings. (We elsewhere have documented the role of bollards in a CCP strategy.)2

Balancing Safe and Secure Design Requirements—The Case for Bollards

The WBDG sees bollard spacing for controlled accessibility for fire vehicles and personnel and advocates that security designers need to “balance security with access, considering bollard location and spacing respective to vehicular traffic, bus stops, hardened street furniture, and pedestrian traffic,” and by implication, fire apparatus access roadways. The final arbiter of acceptable bollard design will be the AHJ of record—the local fire marshal. Section 104 of the 2006 International Fire Codes addresses the AHJ’s General Authority and Responsibilities in this regard, to:

“…enforce the provisions of this code and …have the authority to render interpretations of this code, and to adopt policies, procedures, rules and regulations in order to clarify the applications of its provisions.”

The fire marshal’s responsibility to adjudicate the International Fire Code through its interpretation and application is evidence of the relative lack of fixed standards tied to the codes. (Codes address broad criteria of practice, while standards specify the operational metrics of application.)3 As a result decisions and standards in one community might vary considerably from those in another community. And this is exactly what we have found to be the case in our review of interpretations that were community-specific.

Until recently, in the absence of “codes bearing standards,” design stakeholders have been forced to weigh the pros and cons of pipe bollards and other barrier technologies. Most solutions were less than ideal and created unacceptable encumbrances and time delays for first responders—fire trucks, police, and ambulances. Greater design demands have been placed on bollard manufacturers to satisfy the stakeholders. Prominent among the design issues is the need to balance and optimize both safety and security needs. This issue is expressed in two principles:

First, the quicker first responders gain access through security barriers the sooner safety—the steady state--is returned to the recipient of first responder services.

Second, the quicker security is reestablished at the site following first responder services, the sooner a safety steady state is resumed.

Implicit in these principles is a design issue. While collapsible bollards have been used in recent years, not until recently have diverse first responders been able to easily dismantle them and enter the protected fire access roadway. Four collapsible designs presently are available, and we list them in ascending order of satisfying the two aforementioned principles:

  • A padlocked design; this assumes that all first responders possess and have ready access to a site-specific key in an emergency situation;4
  • A vehicle’s steady bumper force collapses the bollard when a more rapid entry is needed, and the bollard’s breakaway design is capable of easy repair following emergency conditions;
  • A fire hydrant wrench allows first responders to collapse (by unlocking) the bollard and return it to a standing position when emergency conditions are over. All first responders carry these wrenches as standard equipment;
  • A dual function design that combines the features of the second and third design options.5


We have used a generic definition of each safety and security to illustrate how the two are related for any one situation in which planners make design decisions. In the example of planning security for fire access roadways, we showed how ease of access beyond a bollard barrier for fire mitigation and reestablishing the barrier after fire suppression returned a party to a condition of safety. And this was related to bollard design.

Resources and Notes

    1. WBDG, “Plan for Fire Protection,” The WBDG Safe Committee, 10/30/08,

    2. Charles G. Oakes, “Fitting Site Furnishings into Concentric Circles of Protection—The Bollard in Perspective,” AIA KnowledgeNet, December 2008.

    3. Fire Protection Engineering, “Codes and Standards and AHJs—Oh, My!” Spring 2007, http://www.fpemag/archives.article.asp?issue_id=41&I=288.

    4. This option is cumbersome, requiring exiting the first responder apparatus, obtaining a key from a key box, unlocking and collapsing the bollard, and re-entering the apparatus. A comprehensive discussion of different designs is found at

    5. These bollard applications “Keep Honest People Honest.” They are not attack rated. By defining a line not to be crossed, they are consistent with Crime Protection Through Environmental Design (CPTED) principles.

Dr. Charles G. Oakes is a Security Consultant with Blue Ember Technologies, LLC and can be contacted at 615-731-4405 or


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