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HomeImportant TopicsBuilding HeightBig Issues of the Gateway Plan: Fire Protection -- and a solution

Big Issues of the Gateway Plan: Fire Protection — and a solution

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

The big myths and issues that were a part of the draft Gateway Area Plan when it was first made public in December, 2021, are still with us. Over the passage of these 21 months these issues are perhaps better focused and made more clear. That helps us in seeing them for what they are.

This is part of a series of articles the large issues of the Gateway Area Plan.

And to perhaps pre-empt those who may view what I am writing here as mere criticism: I did not create these issues. The issues are real. Collectively, we can create solutions. Ignoring these issues is not a solution.

These issues have existed, they have been noted, and yet they are still do not have any kind of a real resolution. Oh, there’s been plenty of talk, all right. Talk is easy. Creating solutions is what’s needed.

See also: 
Arcata Fire District Director: Eric Loudenslager – August 4, 2022
Arcata Fire District presentation to the Planning Commission – January 10th, 2023
Fire Protection, Police, Wastewater, Infrastructure – Selected articles

Fire Protection

“It seems incomprehensible to me that a recommendation on building height could come out of the Planning Commission or the City Council until we have a full economic analysis of what it’s going to cost the City of Arcata citizens and the Fire District to actually provide the protection there.”

Eric Loudenslager, Arcata Fire District Board of Directors
Speaking to the Planning Commission, August 4, 2022 — one year ago



  1. Introduction and Background
  2. A possible solution — Here’s what we can do
  3. Quotes from our City Councilmembers — from the August 22, 2023, joint City Council / Planning Commission study session
  4. Video of that discussion


Introduction and Background

Currently the Arcata Fire District (AFD) is engaged, in conjunction with the City of Arcata and Cal Poly Humboldt, in seeking a solution to this issue. AFD cannot provide what they see as adequate fire protection for any building above three stories — including existing buildings above three stories.

The situation has been portrayed, in part, as that of needing a ladder truck and the personnel to be trained to operate it. Having a ladder truck here in Arcata would be a good thing, but the ladder truck is not really the heart of the issue.

It’s what the AFD refers to as response time — how many firefighters can assemble here, in how many minutes. The primary goal is not to save the building. The goal is to save the people. The firefighters have to establish a safe passage and then go into the building and knock on every door. And that takes trained people — lots of them for a four-story or taller building.

As we were told at the AFD’s presentation on January 10, 2023, under more or less best-case conditions, the response time to assemble enough firefighters to deal with a four-story or higher building is in the order of 43 minutes. A response time that long is 100% unacceptable, and could very easily result in fatalities. If there were to be another incident at the time — another fire, another emergency response need, a storm or earthquake or other natural disaster, or even something as simple as Highway 101 being slowed or blocked from rush-hour traffic or an accident — then the response time goes up and the possibility of a terrible tragedy rises.

The new 6-story and 7-story Craftsman Mall dormitory buildings are being built using a higher standard of fire protection. Incorporating this high level of fire-protective materials and design is expensive. A non-government-funded developer will likely find that level of construction to be unaffordable. The Gateway code cannot insist on it. 

And, even so, a better building does not stop the cause of most fire deaths: Smoke inhalation. And that’s why it takes many firefighters to be at the building as quickly as they can — to get people out of the building. Not to save the building. To save the people.


A possible solution

It is my opinion that, given time, the AFD, the City of Arcata, and Cal Poly — perhaps with the help of our elected officials in Sacramento, State Senator Mike McGuire and Assemblyman Jim Wood — will find a solution to the Fire Protection issue.

I don’t have any inside information on this. I have not spoken with the AFD. I say this only because there is too much at stake. Not having fire protection for dorm students is a potentially scandalous situation, to say nothing of the safety concerns.

Does that mean we should prohibit taller buildings in the Gateway area, until this can be resolved? Not at all.

Here’s what we can do

Developers can design a four-story or taller building, get their funding, have the building approved, start construction and even complete the construction. But they will not be eligible to get a certificate of occupancy until the Arcata Fire District says it’s okay. Whether that means the lower three floors of the building could have occupancy (with higher floors blocked off) or if the entire building cannot be occupied, I’ll leave that to the AFD.  And that could be a case-by-case decision, based on other fire-safety elements, such as number of stairwells, and so forth.

In theory, the AFD will have this matter of providing fire protection in taller buildings worked out over the next 2-5 years. And construction of apartments in Arcata might start to happen in about that same time-frame.

This condition would have to be a part of the Gateway language — and worded clearly and strongly.


Quotes from our City Councilmembers, from the August 22, 2023, joint City Council / Planning Commission study session

To listen to the audio while reading this, go to the video below and start it, and then come back to this point by using your browser’s back arrow to read the transcription.

Councilmember Kimberley White   
2:08:47 on the City video.  On YouTube:  2:00:05
Well, okay, let me just say this. In Arcata the Arcata Fire District made it clear that we have been basically lucky with the emergency evacuations at Sorrel Place during which tragedies were averted. In fact, I think that maybe Gregory Daggett had mentioned this. Some community members have tried to make the argument that we already have tall buildings in Arcata, such as the five-story at the BSS Behavioral and Social Science building at Cal Poly Humboldt campus. I just want to point out, however, this building is not residential. People and students do not live there. My understanding is that this building has a different fire protection requirement. So part of my decision-making on building height, in addition to being people-centric, is that I had to take in account our lack of adequate fire and rescue services and infrastructure. Now Cal Poly Humboldt has made a decision to move forward with building heights of six and seven stories for their Craftsmen student off campus housing. And if Cal Poly Humboldt wants to take that calculated risks, and gamble with students lives, that’s their decision and that’s their responsibility. And as you may know, the State does not have to abide by the city’s regulations.
While I set the limit of five stories in the Barrel District, I did so with reticence. It is my hope that this building height will not come to fruition until the Arcata Fire District is confident that they can protect the building. And, more importantly, the human lives that are at risk inside that building. While we might be able to rebuild, lost lives can never be replaced. Both those who are living in the building, but also those firefighters who put their lives on the line to defend a building that we simply don’t have the resources, the training, the staff, the trucks, the ladders, to confidently defend a building at this height. If there was a fire and tragedy struck and human lifes were lost, I would not be able to sleep at night, knowing that I took a calculated risk. So I’m going to stand in solidarity with the Arcata Fire District and their very significant concerns. At this time the Standard of Coverage has yet to be completed and resources are [not] in place to defend these buildings. So we can revisit these height. It’s not a done deal. Our Community Development Director and staff who have worked tirelessly on this Gateway Area Plan have stated — It’s going to take the next 20 years to build these 500 units. And we can modify and amend the Gateway Area Plan element and the Form-Based Codes within the General Plan.

The conversation continues:
Mayor Sarah Schaefer
2:11:37 on the City video.  On YouTube:  2:02:56
Well, I just want to add — I mean, Cal Poly is going to keep building buildings that are seven stories, eight stories. That’s not going to stop. And so why should we as a city say, Okay, we’re not going to build anything above three stories because we’re scared of this, right, instead of fixing the problem and working to improve our fire district and funding for our fire district and hiring more firefighters and promoting firefighter training through our various avenues of partnerships with Cal Poly and CR and all this stuff. Why would we say no, we don’t want to build houses for people because we don’t have some equipment, right? I think the real solution to that problem, it’s not to say don’t build it. It’s to say, Okay, let’s figure out what the problems are, and then solve it. Because there are people that need a place to live now. And if they don’t have a place to live, they’re not going to have a place to live.
And so just, but it’s just the argument is not pro-housing. And so for me where I come [from] for all of these arguments, I mean, it wraps back around to housing. And housing is an intersectional issue. And housing touches transportation, housing touches climate change, it touches all of these things that threaten the everyday lives of our citizens — as well as fire. But with modern fire suppression techniques, the way that buildings are built, sprinkler systems, it is not. And I was told this by, you know, there’s some outspoken members of the Fire District that spoke out. But also there are plenty of members of that Fire District board that said we actually have very high tech fire suppression in buildings now, and talking to folks within the building trades as well, that it is highly unlikely that a fire in a seven-story building is going to sweep through and cause massive devastation with the way that current buildings are built and up to fire code. 
Prior to Councilmember Kimberley White speaking:
Vice-Mayor Meredith Matthews   
1:56:14 on the City video.  On YouTube:  1:47:32
All right. I will say that I do generally agree with the recommendation of the Planning Commission. So thank you. But there are a couple of things that I would like to clarify. So when we’re talking about building height and massing, is this where we started to talk about Density Bonuses?  Or, I mean, is that — no, that’s fine. That’s fine. 
I just want, you know — There’s been a lot of concern about the fire trucks and all sorts of things. I just like to remind people that, you know, a seven-story building is not going to be built tomorrow. I don’t think anybody is going to want to invest in a building that is not sustainable or will burn down. I think that there is new technology coming all the time. And there are new ways that we’re building that mitigate that. And from the conversation that I had with David earlier, and maybe we can talk about that again, a ladder truck that’s going to take one person down a ladder at a time, it’s not going to save a whole building anyway. And safety features are always improving.
What I did have a question about, though, is, when we are talking about the Barrel District, and which was seven stories that was recommended, that it was stated that there is a timeline for the Barrel District. So can we talk about again, like what you told me earlier, what that whole Implementation Plan looks like? And are those buildings predicated on that Barrel District plan?