As the fire service evolves, so do its fire stations. New facilities must solve problems related to co-ed living quarters, increased EMS calls, extensive computer and communications systems, and more.
Fire departments in the western United States have built, renovated and designed well over 100 fire stations in the last five years. Major building programs are occurring in Los Angeles; Phoenix; Portland, Ore.; Seattle; Fresno, Calif.; San Diego; Riverside, Calif.; Sacramento; San Jose; and Santa Clara, Calif., to name a few. These building programs have all been challenged to develop fire station designs that respond to the evolution of a “new” fire service.
These fire stations have had to accommodate a tremendous amount of operational and personnel change in the fire service. These changes have included:
- Privatized living quarters as more women join the fire service.
- Decontamination spaces, medical supply storage and medical reporting work stations, driven by a predominantly EMS-related call load.
- Dedicated gear storage to remove turnouts from living quarters and air-extraction systems for apparatus, driven by a heightened awareness of air-quality issues.
- Additional computer work stations as more firefighters communicate via e-mail and handle increased inspection duties and office work.
- Larger, dedicated communication rooms for expanding systems.
- Community rooms with associated facilities to fulfill neighborhood service missions.
- Dedicated fitness rooms to better support fitness programs.
- Storage space for the ever-expanding supplies and equipment for urban search and rescue, hazmat response, mass-casualty incidents, marine firefighting, air support, and more.
And of course, the list goes on to include secure sites, generators with 72 hours of fuel, containment of water used to wash vehicles, and better training facilities within stations.
A survey of metropolitan departments determined that the evolution of fire station design has been effective in responding to these changes. Here's how:
Privatization of sleeping quarters
While many veteran firefighters worried about the loss of crew unification when the traditional bunk room was changed to private dorm rooms, most fire chiefs believe that the private dorm rooms have actually helped solve some of the societal issues that occur in fire stations.
The main benefit is that a private dorm room provides firefighters with the choice to interact or retract. According to Chief Ron Prince, Santa Cruz (Calif.) Fire Department, a separate dorm room not only increases privacy, it “allows medics to prepare incident reports if properly outfitted with a desk and data ports and is an ideal place for firefighters to study.… There is not a loss of camaraderie caused by the private rooms.”
Deputy Chief Kirk Blair, Bakersfield (Calif.) Fire Department, agrees that the idea a company would become less unified with separate sleeping quarters has been disproved as more stations with them come online. “Privacy is a good addition to the fire stations,” says Blair. “The dorm room is used as a study area, and the privacy certainly eases the conflicts caused by snoring and other personal-hygiene issues.”
Privatization of restrooms
Providing private facilities for each gender has been solved through many approaches, including the use of unisex restrooms, dedicated male and female restrooms, and separate restrooms for each sleeping room. The Bakersfield fire station facilities program implemented unisex restrooms in its first project. However, the program later learned that more privacy is desired. According to Blair, “it is awkward for women firefighters to use the unisex restrooms with the majority of the male firefighters.”
San Jose recently adopted a fire facility master program that provides a private restroom adjacent to each sleeping room. According to Capt. Jim McClure, member of the San Jose fire bond facility team, this arrangement solved many gender-related privacy issues.
“An added benefit is this privacy level can be achieved in less square footage than any other space model, including the traditional bunk room/locker room arrangement,” McClure says. “This was a development that saved a significant amount of square footage by reducing the amount of space required for circulation throughout our entire fire facilities bond project.”
Two of the major metropolitan departments surveyed have chosen variations of the traditional bunk room design with dedicated facilities based on rank. The City of Los Angeles provides a group bunk room for all of the firefighters and engineers, a separate bunk room for the captains, and a third for the medic crews. Sacramento uses a single bunk room for all firefighters/medics and engineers, with separate quarters for captains and battalion chiefs. Both departments provide separate restroom/locker room facilities for each gender, with the captains having a restroom separate from the crew.
Decon spaces and dedicated medical storage
For medical cleanup, as in real estate, location is everything. Most every station surveyed provides a decontamination area for medical cleanup. The key to maximizing its use — beyond requiring it as an SOP — was locating the cleanup area on or immediately adjacent to the apparatus bay. Locating it on the path of travel to the station office or living quarters was critical.
A significant change is that the medical equipment used by firefighters and medics today is predominantly disposable, so the heaviest use in the cleanup area is hand washing or small equipment cleaning. In addition, the storage areas need to hold an ever-growing supply cache. All departments surveyed provide a dedicated storage area for medical supplies, which is located most successfully next to the responding unit for ease of restocking. It should be separate from the cleanup area and lockable.
Dedicated turnout rooms and vehicle exhaust systems
Every department surveyed provides dedicated turnout storage rooms. Turnout room layouts ranged from a shelf and pole system that maximizes the amount of gear stored in a minimum amount of space to dedicated lockers for each assigned member, with additional locked storage for special unit gear bags. All departments also have diesel exhaust systems in the apparatus bays, either tail-pipe systems or whole-room exhaust.
With all major metropolitan departments using e-mail as the main internal communication tool, access to computers and the Internet is provided in many locations at virtually every station. It is standard to include data ports in sleeping rooms, the day room and dining room, and in all conference rooms and office spaces.
One department plans to provide data access in all storage rooms to simplify inventory. That agency already has data ports in the electrical room and exercise room, anticipating future trends in the monitoring and control of HVAC systems and the tracking of fitness programs. In the renovation program that upgraded all of the Santa Cruz fire stations, the one program change Prince would have made was “more outlets, more data ports and more electrical circuits.”
All chiefs have found through their communications teams that a closet is no longer functional as a space for the radio, phone and data systems. Multiple company stations routinely have communications rooms up to 120 square feet in size.
Fire service fitness programs have become important enough that virtually every fire department surveyed has included a dedicated fitness room in each station. With a focus on safe aerobic exercise and strength training, the days of the racquetball or basketball court have faded away. The emphasis is now on the use of equipment such as treadmills, elliptical trainers and universal weight machines.
In the larger cities such as Seattle, Los Angeles and Sacramento, community meeting space has been provided in other city facilities, typically community centers or libraries. In San Jose, the need to include a community room is evaluated on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis depending on other resources available; community rooms were included in two of the department's 10 new stations. In contrast, a community meeting space is a standard component of three fire stations under construction in Fresno. All chiefs agreed that if a community room is attached to a fire station, it has to have its own restroom and storage space.
The majority of fire chiefs reported that their new fire station projects include a secure site with 6- to 8-foot fences and automatic gates. Most lobbies are secure vestibules with vision panels allowing views from both in the station and through the front door. Many of the fire stations in volatile areas have surveillance cameras and remote front door operators, and those in the most difficult areas have security grating on windows. Adaptability in security systems is very important as both neighborhoods and technologies evolve.
Points of order
What key points have these fire departments learned in the last five years in designing for the “new” fire service?
- Private living quarters do not foster a decline in team work. In many cases it has helped to reduce the daily stresses of living in close quarters, easing tensions that can compromise team work.
- Medical cleanup in a designated area will only happen on a regular basis if it's convenient to use when returning from a call.
- Dedicated turnout rooms and air-extraction systems are simple, yet effective, ways to improve station air quality.
- Security and access to technology for all levels of personnel is important. A department's technology team must be involved from the very beginning to anticipate current and future system needs.
- There's never enough room for the storage of supplies and equipment. A good start is to inventory your current storage needs and dispose of supplies and equipment that are obsolete. Measuring the materials that remain is a good start to getting the storage in line with operational needs.
With an emphasis on a healthier living environment, personal privacy and space planning that supports operational procedures, the new wave of fire station design seems to be a success in addressing many of the operational and personnel changes that departments have experienced in the last few years.
Mary McGrath, AIA, is the director of civic architecture for Ratcliff in Emeryville, Calif., and has dedicated her 18-year career to the planning and design of public safety facilities. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.