There's no place like home -- everyone knows that. But how true is it now that fire stations gradually shed their industrial, aircraft hanger atmosphere and gain touches of home?
The growing shift toward residential styling for fire station interiors and exteriors is just one change among dozens that announce to the fire service and the community, "This is not your father's fire station." Recently, FIRE CHIEF interviewed a number of architects who design fire stations. Aside from seismic testing in earthquake-prone areas, trends in fire station planning and design are remarkably similar nationwide.
Explosive suburban growth and gentrification of urban neighborhoods have brought with them the need for new fire stations. In addition, older fire stations are showing their age and need to be rehabbed. Some communities' fire stations have been around for 50 years or more, in some cases a lot more. They're steeped in history, tradition, nostalgia and magnificent architectural flourishes, but many are also steeped in soot from years of diesel exhaust belched directly into living quarters.
As the fire service enlarges its basic mission, expands its complement of women personnel, and focuses on health and safety issues, its leaders must ensure that those changes are reflected in fire station design. What follows are observations, suggestions and insights about the entire fire station design process from seasoned architects who work with fire service leaders from coast to coast.
Many architects cite strategic planning as a vital first step in addressing building committee concerns and issues of site selection and blending into the community. "We get in pretty early during the pre-design phase and go through an exercise we call 'scoping,' says Mitch Conner of RMW Architecture + Design in Santa Rosa, Calif. "It's a preliminary programming effort that fleshes out the issues and problems within a fire department.
"I believe in many cases it helps get projects funded, accepted and endorsed within a community. It enables the fire chief to be able to say, 'We have thought through this building, and it fits into our bigger vision of what we're doing as a department and the level of service we're going to provide."
In 1997, the U. S. Fire Administration published a special technical report on safety considerations for the design and construction of new fire stations. (See sidebar) "That just opened up numerous, numerous questions," says Gordon Merz of Wiscontech Inc. in Waukesha, Wis. "We use that and recommend a feasibility study to see that the stations are in the right locations, determine if there are any deficiencies in their current stations, and what they're looking for in the future."
Building committees. Planning a fire station often takes longer than it used to in order to accommodate input from firefighters, neighbors and community groups. "Our very first question is "How have you structured your building team?" Conner says. "Get them involved, because they're the ones using the facilities. They're great - a lot of them are in the building trades themselves in their off-hours. They have good ideas and take a lot of pride in their facilities."
Another option is to have the architects facilitate the process. "It depends on the district," says Stephen G. Knarr of Horner & Shifrin, a St. Louis firm. "Some districts and departments have their own larger group meetings with their staff and firefighters to come up with some consensus ideas." These are turned over to a building committee made up of three or four department representatives who then work with the architects.
"We have a fairly detailed questionnaire to help us make sure we ask all the right questions," Knarr says. "We hand these out at the beginning of jobs so we can be sure they think about all these things. It's helpful for us and for the departments because it's a checklist for them to make sure they've covered all the bases."
There was one concept that many architects stressed: One size does not fit all. "I've worked on close to 25 different stations," Conner says. "Even though they all have the same components in them, in some way they all reflect the culture of the individual departments.
"We work with them to understand what that is, get it down on paper, which forces them to go back and look at how they've used their stations in the past and how they expect to be using them in the future. And the future can be anywhere from 30 to 50 years. Most of the replacement stations [we're doing now] were built in the '50s and '60s. You can just see that it was a different game back then."
"I do not believe there is such a thing as a prototypical fire station design," says Joe Pahl of Pahl-Pahl-Pahl Architects/Planners, a Denver firm. "I believe each station and each site has its own functionality and its own needs. For fire departments to design a prototype station and just re-use it over and over again, I don't think is responsive to the firefighters or the life safety of the community."
Site selection. According to Merz, fire stations used to be built either for political reasons or in locations where land was donated. "Now what we're doing is putting fire stations where they should go," he says, with an eye toward ISO ratings. The process can be as simple as going through municipal zoning reviews that are open to the public, but sometimes it requires a lot more selling. "People want fire stations to provide a level of life safety protection, but for some reason they don't want them as neighbors," Conner says. As Pahl puts it, "It's a project everybody wants about three blocks away."
Strategic planning documents allow the chief and local government leaders to explain the benefits of locating the fire station in a particular place. "Fire stations can be very good neighbors," says Wayne Hughes of Hughes Group Architects in Sterling, Va. "People have this image of fire stations as being loud, with a lot of light, a lot of sound, a lot of radios. But fire and rescue services have changed dramatically in the past 10 years, with the use of pagers and the ability to damp down sirens and lighting. In many ways, they're better neighbors than they used to be."
"You've always got the nimbys," Knarr says, "but in our experience, most people are happy to have a fire station in the neighborhood. I think they just feel safer that they have quick access to protection. And they know that it will be manned all the time, so there's someone there in case something happens in the neighborhood. We haven't had too many radical reactions against a new station in the neighborhood."
Merz was the only architect to bring up an interesting question: When you build a replacement station on a different site, what happens to the old building? He cited re-design examples such as daycare centers, senior citizen facilities and medical offices.
Blending into the community
Fire stations are an odd assembly of garage, dormitory, kitchen, gym and landscaping. "It's an ongoing design issue: how to fit the context and be a good neighbor," Conner says. "It's an interesting design problem because you've got all the different components: It's a house, it's a business, it's sort of an industrial-style space and it's a civic symbol. People always take pride in their fire stations. We've built a lot of them in city parks because that's where there's available land. The fire station becomes a sort of steward of the park, kind of keeps an eye on things."
In Colorado, says Hans Kahn of Denver-based Hans Kahn Associates Inc., most communities appoint a design review committee. "We meet with them, present the designs, receive their comments and usually try to respond to those, as long as it's reasonable. We're also providing community meeting rooms in each fire station, and these serve not only the community but also as training rooms for firefighters." (See "On common ground" )
"With residential-style stations, we generally try to design them so they're going to fit in," Knarr says. "I know a lot of departments have policies that they don't hit their airhorns and their sirens until they're out on a commercial street. It's just common courtesy."
Apparatus bays Sound pollution and neighborhood traffic aren't the only issues that fire trucks have to deal with. Getting into the apparatus bay is critical, but the details required to make that happen efficiently are more complicated than they might seem.
"We design the station so that when you enter the apparatus bay, you don't run into the back of the fire trucks," Pahl says. "You enter so that you're coming between trucks or into an open area." Other considerations include having two entries into the apparatus bay so twice as many people can enter in the same amount of time, and using crash bars instead of door knobs or handles. Katia Thomas, also with Pahl-Pahl-Pahl Architects/Planners, suggests doors that open outward, toward the direction of travel, to reduce bottlenecks.
Exhaust extraction. Whether it's source extraction gear that attaches directly to the apparatus or more traditional exhaust fan systems, everyone agrees that keeping the air in the apparatus bay clean and separate from living quarters is important. "We've all been in these old fire stations where there are tailpipes aimed right at doors heading into bunkrooms, and you can walk in there and see what it's done to the floors and everything," Knarr says. "Obviously, it's probably not a safe condition for any of the people occupying the building."
Radiant heat. Keeping the apparatus warm, even during winter, is a consideration that Merz emphasizes. "We're using a lot of radiant heat on apparatus floors so the apparatus is at a constant temperature at all times. Any engine with a tank, you've got a cold set in the springs. There is a turning radius difference, and you go around a corner with 500 or 1,500 gallons of water, and your truck is listing to one side more than the other, you'e going to roll that piece of apparatus over."
Drains. What about one of the universal complaints about apparatus bays? That is, the drains don't work. "Well, you've got to work with a good architect," Hughes says with a laugh. "We've got highly specialized details. We do not use point drains; we use linear strip drains. We do not place drains at the doors. We've learned the hard way that the best place for these linear drains is under the vehicle, because all the debris, snow, ice and rain drain under and into the middle of the vehicle. Not between the vehicles where personnel have to run."
Pahl agrees, though he says his clients still vary widely about the drains' position. "Sometimes they want them between the vehicles; sometimes they want them under the vehicles. It depends on whether they want to use crawlers under the vehicles for maintenance." Thomas says the firm also uses a six-inch elevation change from the apparatus bay to the living quarters to keep water out; the rise is bridged by a ramp to meet ada considerations.
Floor plates. Another issue is floor texture. Nearly all the architects say that finding just the right mix of grit on the floor plate is tough: Too small and boots hydroplane across the floor; too much and you get a floor you can't clean. (If you plan to keep the bay floors clean with a hose and squeegee, be sure that the light fixtures and electrical outlets are waterproof.)
Exits. After all the design and effort to get the firefighters to the vehicle, some designers still forget to address how the apparatus exits the station itself. "As the vehicle leaves the building, it needs a clear line of vision and the least amount of vehicular conflict that we can provide. It's an important part of the site design," says Scott Pirnack of Pahl-Pahl-Pahl. "We pay particular attention to how it's going to enter the road system and its relationship to intersections so we can minimize the potential for conflict."
Decon areas Health and safety considerations for firefighters, their colleagues and their families have resulted in an aggressive approach to decontamination in the fire house. "The John Wayne look for firefighters, that's out," says Merz.
"An important space that we didn't used to have to provide for is a decontamination room," Knarr says. "With the new nfpa guidelines about proper decon after a call, we've been seeing more and more districts ask for a separate decon space right off the apparatus bay that has showers and a commercial laundry in it." He notes that some departments without such a facility resort to hosing down returning personnel right in the apparatus bay.
Indeed, the impetus to keep turnout gear out of the living area is becoming a science unto itself. "When we're designing a station, we think about the firefighters' actual path of travel back into the station," Conner says. "We give them an opportunity to [shed gear] before they get back into the living quarters. Think about how the equipment comes off. Where does it go?"
Mary McGrath of the RRM Design Group in San Luis Obispo, Calif., says her firm uses different floor surfaces as demarcation for decon. "We're trying to get them set up where if you go into carpet, you don't have any turnout gear on. Once you go across to the living area, [the gear] should be in an alcove off the app bay or right out where the apparatus are." This doesn't please some people who are accustomed to having their gear in the bunk rooms, she says. "It generally [takes] a definite shift in the operational approach from above."
The comforts of home Across the country, architects are suggesting everything from skylights to patios with gas grills to make the workplace feel more like home.
"The biggest change we've seen in the past 10 years is this idea of using more compartmentalized space - smaller dorm rooms, smaller toilet rooms - and beginning to treat the station more like a house," Conner says. "You're with people for 24 hours, and you need the ability to get away sometimes, to study or read a book or just be by yourself.
"If you look at a lot of the older fire stations, they're very institutional looking: big rooms, big dormitories, big dining halls. There was sort of a monumental look to them because that's what they were. That's not a very pleasant environment to be in for long periods of time. So the way you physically come up with the space and treat the space with materials and color, you give it a more human feel."
Fitness rooms. The emphasis on firefighter health and fitness has led to extensive exercise facilities in fire stations across the nation. Some stations even feature whirlpool spas and regulation basketball and racquetball courts. Knarr notes the shift a bit wistfully: "In St. Louis, all the old city stations - some of them go back to the horse days - they're pretty rough facilities to work out of. But in the basement, they always have either a pool table or a ping-pong table. And some of these guys are unbelievable. You can tell they've been playing for 25 or 30 years.
"The new stations, they never seem to want to do that. The newer districts where everything is growing are building new stations. Their state-of-the art room is their physical training room. They like to have all the mirrors on the wall and the latest exercise equipment. Some of these places look like a y or something. But for some reason, they never want to have a pool table or a ping-pong table - it's like thats not healthy or something."
Downtime. What are departments looking for in relaxation? Pahl cites a fire station design his firm did for an Air Force base fire department: "They wanted sufficient space in their dayroom to have a BarcaLounger tiltback chair for each person on shift so they could all watch tv together."
Cable tv is still a big staple for firefighters, a number of architects say, but their clients usually are very cognizant of the fact that the taxpayers are watching, too. "They are concerned about the perception the public has that we're spending an awful lot of money on something," Pahl says. "One of the reasons we haven't seen [satellite tv] dishes attached to fire stations is the public might perceive that as an extravagance."
Kitchens. As in many homes, the kitchen is a focal point of a lot of fire stations, but it can also become the source of friction when there are too many cooks. Oakland, Calif., architect Don Dommer suggests separate refrigerators and dry storage areas for each shift.
However, he says that "there's a real concern about building a Taj Mahal. They want the kitchen fixtures to be durable, but they're very careful about appearing ostentatious." He does cite one potential breach of this protocol in an affluent, coffee-loving community in northern California. Each shift insisted on its own coffee grinders, coffee storage containers and espresso machines.
Lockers. "In all of our locker rooms, we use simulated wood lockers," Hughes says. "It's a trick we picked up from the Los Angeles Police Department. In all their substations, they put in simulated wood lockers because it increases that homey feeling. We're trying to get rid of that institutional feeling, trying to inject the wood, carpet, and other materials and textures that remind professionals of their home atmosphere. We're trying to de-institutionalize the box, as we say."
Maintenance. Keeping up appearances is an important aspect of a station's quality of life, too. "There's nothing worse than going to work in a place that looks tired and run-down," Hughes says, "so we're trying to specify materials that maintain a very positive profile over time."
This includes looking for materials that are durable and easy to clean. For example, scrubbable wall coverings are preferable to painted sheetrock. Of course, some budgets won't allow the use of higher-cost material, particularly if available funds need to be spent on a station's exterior to ensure it blends into the neighborhood.
Sleeping quarters. There's no one answer, it seems, to coed housing questions. "The gender issue - women firefighters - has gotten to be very interesting," Conner says. "Each department definitely has a different spin on it. Some say, 'Well, we'll give them their own dorm room and a small bathroom.'That was how it was handled for many years.
"Now the whole notion of discriminating against women firefighters has led us to the point where we design equal facilities so, regardless of the mix of men and women on any given shift, no one is going to feel discriminated against. That sounds like a great idea, but there's money involved in doing that. It does add cost."
Kahn adds, "One we're just starting construction on does make some special provisions for female firefighters. We have one room that can be exclusively for female firefighters, although the way the station is designed - three beds per room and three shifts - there is usually only one person in a bedroom at a time." Dommer says he designs dorms that are used every other shift; as he puts it: "It's not a hot bed, but you don't have your own bed, either."
Hughes, too, cites the trend of modular design to accommodate both shift and gender flexibility. "It allows the fire chief to shuffle the personnel very easily. Gone is the day of large bunk rooms. Now we have modular bunk rooms that address the varying numbers of fire and rescue personnel. Obviously, the dramatically increased number of women who are in this field is a keynote of the design."
Showers and bathrooms. Coed housing issues don't stop with sleeping arrangements. McGrath breaks the locker room/restroom issue down into three basic options:
* separate but equal;
* separate but unequal; or
In each case, the trend is toward residential-style layout. "Instead of having big gang showers and large toilet rooms, where you might have two or three lavatories, two toilets and three showers, we're putting in what looks like a residential shower/toilet room," Conner says. "You do three or four of those. That way, one person goes in, locks the door, and that seems to calm everybody down. But that costs more money because you have to create these separate rooms."
"We've been asked to come in and take what was basically a single-sex station and modify the restrooms and locker rooms so they could have separate facilities because they had a female onboard," Knarr says. "The temporary solution was to put a lock on the door so the women could lock themselves in while they were in there, so of course then you've got grumbling if someone else has to use the bathroom. It seems to be more and more common now that we provide a separate locker, shower and toilet room. In most cases it's smaller than men's facilities" based on the ratio of women employees.
McGrath says that she sees more agencies moving to the gender-neutral facilities, largely because they're less expensive. This option only works well, she warns, if there is a so-called "modesty provision." Modesty provisions address department members walking around in a towel or less, and typically require everyone to always wear at least a t-shirt and shorts.
"That's what you sleep in, that's what you wear," McGrath says. "We're seeing a lot of that, and it makes the gender-neutral solution work a little better. A lot of the more traditional fire departments have a hard time with it, but things are changing."
One-story stations don't lend themselves to the thrill of the firepole, but they do help ensure clear exit paths from sleeping quarters to the apparatus bay.
"One of our first considerations is the quickest and most efficient response path for the firefighters," says Thomas. "We have to think about opening the path of travel to the apparatus bay, particularly so there's no intersection or conflict with the rooms open to the community."
Some firms expand on such pathfinding methods with automation. "We take a functional, engineering approach to fire stations," Knarr says. "For instance, when an alarm comes in, [we want to give firefighters] a safe transition out of bed at four o'clock in the morning and get them onto trucks. There are certain things that can happen automatically that are triggered by the alarm. Lighting all the major areas where the firefighters might be and lighting the path to the apparatus bay are some examples.
"We have also done stations with automatic shut-offs to the gas on the stove and to the barbecue grill outside. It can be overridden just by hitting a button on the wall, but it gives them one less thing to think about if they're right in the middle of meal prep" when a call comes in.
Thomas suggests low-level interior lighting systems that don't interfere with firefighters' night vision - and don't bother the neighbors.
McGrath acknowledges the possibilities of automation, but her firm follows the tenet: Keep it simple. "You can do just about anything these days with electronics. We did some tricky electronics in one station, but once something happens to them, no one knows how to fix them. So we try to design our stations so they are pretty low-tech."
However, she does suggest an automation computer package called "First In," which controls the response zones and tones. "Because a lot of the stations now have paramedic engines," she said, "they want to ring them down separately from the rest because they're going out so much more."
Sprinklers. Fire stations aren't immune from the threat of fire, and it's traumatic, not to mention embarrassing, to have yours burn down. Several firms noted the importance of leading by example when it comes to sprinklers and smoke alarms in the firehouse.
"Fire stations are supposed to be an example for others when it comes to fire protection," Thomas says. "Sprinkler systems are not required [by code] for this type of building, but we recommend them and usually install them." In Greeley, Colo., the Union Colony Fire Department encourages sprinklers in all of the city's commercial and public buildings, Pahl says. As a result, the station was turned into a sprinkler showcase by using a number of different kinds of heads for different applications.
Security. The firehouse of yesteryear, open to all comers 24 hours a day, is a thing of the past. "We lock down our stations tight during a call," says Pirnack.
There's no question that there's a heightened level of security, agrees Hughes. "All of our stations are equipped with high-security devices. Obviously, police facilities have always been a target. We're seeing more and more fire stations becoming symbols of governmental presence, and so we are trying to design safety features into them.
"Not only active security such as cipher locks and video cameras, but also angled window sills, so incendiary devices can't be placed next to windows. That and making sure the command center in a fire station is at the front door are examples of the minor changes that have evolved in the past five to eight years."
"We provide a vestibule at the entrance that is secure," Kahn says. "From that you can enter either the community room or the station itself. It's always secure and under the direct observation of the shift commander." There's a bell at the front door with a buzzer to unlock the door and let authorized personnel enter.
"One thing we're seeing that a lot of departments really want is a secure place to park employee vehicles," McGrath says. "They want a rolling gate that locks and a high fence."
Personnel access. As for authorized entry, "the cipher lock has turned out to be the best," Hughes says. "Typically, the personnel have to remember four very simple numbers. The cipher can be changed at any time, and it needs to be often. We have found it to be a foolproof system." Keypad locks and credit card-style swipe systems similar to ones used in hotels are other options.
In addition to these high-tech options, Dommer has reached back to World War II for ballistic-resistance data that will be used in the replacement of a combination fire station and sheriff's office from the '60s. "We need something that will stand up to a 9mm or .357 bullet," he says. "This building uses concrete block, laminated glass and some glass block to accomplish that." Dommer says he had to go all the way back to 1940s data about the concrete block's bullet resistance for his "sort of low-tech solution."
Training and education
Some architects are helping fire departments take their training to a new, high-tech level. “Most of the stations we’re doing now will be networked together,” Kahn says, speaking of six stations in a Colorado fire district. “We have TVs and VCRs and a camera system so they can train at one station and broadcast it to all the stations or tape it for later.”
Such solutions are nice for training firefighters, but when it comes to public education, there are plenty of good old-fashioned solutions that work just fine with a little planning.
“We can have a ‘safety town’ next to fire stations to teach fire prevention,” Merz says. “We can have a memorial and a picnic area next to the fire station where we can bring the community in. That can be done with the landscaping.
“We make berms for the parking area that keep our headlights from shining on the neighborhood, but our berms also become natural bleachers. School children can have a boxed lunch and sit on these berms, and we can go through fire safety right on the fire station’s driveway. It’s bringing the community into what we do, and into the fire station.”
Pahl cautions about the tendency to build a station that fits perfectly at the moment but leaves no room for future growth.
“What we’ve gone through with Denver, when they size their fire station, they always try to add one more bay than they need,” he says, noting that the “extra” bays can be used in the meantime to house the department’s specialty vehicles for its bomb squad and hazmat unit. They also build enough crew space to staff the additional vehicle in the future, or at least plan for such expansion.
Pahl says that some departments are building stations which can be adapted to accommodate a larger contingent of women firefighters in the future if their numbers continue to increase.
Maintaining, repairing and improving a station is an ongoing prospect. Hughes suggests that those in the market for fire station design make sure they find a firm with knowledge of the fire service, as well as a willingness to learn from the people who use the facility every day.
“One of the unique things about our firm is that on the one-year anniversary of every fire station we design, we go and visit the station,” Hughes says. “I have slept in most of our fire stations. We go on runs with them; we know what it’s like to come back from a midnight run. We know what it’s like to wash down a vehicle inside the building in the middle of winter.
“From these visits, we generate all kinds of notes and improvements from the firefighters. All these tips that I’m giving here are really coming from the personnel who operate our buildings.”
Tim Elliott is a McLean, Va.–based writer.