An architect new to fire-station design contacted me to discuss sleeping quarters. He had read about the use of individual sleeping quarters, but was in the process of designing a fire station with a single dorm room. “What’s better,” he asked.
There’s no easy answer to this question.There are three basic types of sleeping quarters:
- A single large bunk/dorm room without walls to separate individual sleeping areas. The beds typically are lined up side by side and occasionally are separated by some sort of fixture, usually a locker or other storage unit.
- Separate sleeping quarters for each firefighter. Such rooms typically feature a bed, desk, and a locker or storage unit for each shift.
- A compromise solution based on the two previous types. There is one large dorm room but individual sleeping areas are separated by a (typically) 6-foot-high wall.
Sleeping-quarter design often is driven by budgetary factors. Building one large sleeping room with 10 beds is much cheaper than 10 individual sleeping quarters separated by 6-foot-high walls, which in turn are cheaper than building 10 individual sleeping quarters separated by full-height walls. Add to this the costs of doors, lighting fixtures, wiring and HVAC considerations.
But budgets aside, how do you pick the best sleeping arrangement? Traditionalists have long argued for the single large bunkroom. They claim that individual sleeping quarters discourage camaraderie because they give firefighters a place in which to disappear during the day rather than interact with the rest of the crew. Also, with a single large bunkroom, sleeping through an emergency dispatch in the middle of the night is practically non-existent, as crew members can easily verify that everyone is awake to respond.
Individual sleeping quarters seem to address the needs of today's firefighters better than single bunkrooms. More and more women are entering the fire service. Firefighters are called upon to do more than just fight fires in today's society, requiring ongoing training and research to satisfy the needs and expectations demanded on them. Today's firefighters are much more tech-savvy and are rarely seen without their laptops, iPods or tablets, whereas the firefighters of the previous generation would prefer to have nothing to do with such devices. Individual sleeping quarters address gender issues and provide a degree of privacy. They provide a quiet place for firefighters to work on continuing education requirements and a place to study for promotional exams.
Wouldn't individual sleeping areas separated only by 6-foot-high walls instead of full-height walls provide the same degree of privacy? Not necessarily. Partial-height walls provide visual privacy, but they don’t isolate noise from televisions and radios. The use of headphones or earphones could resolve this problem, but the firefighters run the risk of not hearing dispatch tones. Not all firefighters choose to go to bed at the same time. You may have a firefighter who prefers to go to bed at midnight whereas another may prefer to go to bed at 9. Partial height walls do not isolate light from one sleeping area from another. I've heard from some that even the smallest amount of light keeps them awake. And what does one do about the firefighter who snores? Personally, being a light sleeper myself, that would keep me awake. Partial height walls also do not solve the potential thermostat wars. Some like the room at 72° while others prefer it at 62°.
But we can’t ignore budgets. If at all possible, think long-term and design for the future. Spend a little more now in order to save a lot more in the future. That not only applies to room arrangements but also to appliances and finishes. Convince the decision-makers and purse-holders that this is the way to go. Incorporate individual sleeping quarters into your design now to avoid having to remodel the station later because the other two sleeping solutions prove to be inadequate in the future.
Finally, let me address the issue concerning whether there should only be enough beds for every firefighter on duty or whether there should be a bed for every firefighter assigned to that station. In other words, should there be only 10 (hot) beds with separate bedding storage for 10 on-duty firefighters, or should there be 30 beds so that everyone assigned to that station has his or her own bed? Having a bed for every firefighter assigned to that station is a waste of space and money. Is it unreasonable to expect a person who is supposedly able to rescue a person from a burning building to do something much simpler like remove his or her bedding from his or her bed at shift change so that the on-coming firefighter can use that same bed? No.
Johnny Fong, AIA, is the principal of FireHouse Designs. He also is an operator/engineer for the Reno (Nev.) Fire Department.