10 Years After

I recently paid a visit to a fire station I opened 10 years ago last November. The idea was to see how the building was holding up, to see if the choices we made were correct and to see what we missed. When I called the station, I spoke to the captain on duty. As I started telling him why I wanted to come over, I barely got the words out when he responded “the Apparatus Bay is too damn short.” I laughed and said “direct all complaints to Chief name redacted.” I knew this complaint was coming.


The programming for this station was done from 2004 through 2006. The station was designed for an engine company, ladder company and a battalion chief. The original program made the assumption that the bays should be long enough for a Tiller truck.  We knew they were in the pipeline and we should prepare for them. The economy at the time was booming. This meant that construction costs were up. Senior staff made a command decision to reduce the costs by reducing the square footage of the buildings. Of course, they have every right to do this. The problem was they didn’t consult with the entire design team.  There were several architects plus five uniformed personnel on the programming committee. Four of us were officers. The fifth graduated with a degree in architecture, before figuring out what they wanted to be when they grew up. This wasn’t the only room that suffered. The day room was reduced also. There were other reductions but those two spaces had the most compaction.

When I got to the station and walked into the apparatus bay, there was the Tiller truck. Yes, it fits but it is a good thing the chrome on the front bumper is not any thicker! In order for the captain to reach the right side of the cab, the app door has to be up. There is not enough room between bumper and door to squeeze by. I don’t pay much attention to the rigs except for making sure they can get out quickly and return safely but I believe this station will always need a custom sized tiller.

If any of you are tech geeks, you are familiar with Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law basically says that the number of capacitors and therefore speed and computing power double about every two years. Additionally, the cost of electronics continually drops. Our program called for enough square footage for two lateral file cabinets 42 inches wide, side by side. In other words, there is a seven-foot void. By the time the building was finished and furnished we had moved to electronic file storage. As a result, there are these awkward empty spaces in a half dozen of the stations. That whooshing sound was the speed of light passing us by. Sadly, the space at this particular station was turned into Memorial for a firefighter who passed away several years ago.

I was proud of the fact that I was able to get so much coaxial cable and CAT 5 wiring throughout the entire building. (At this point you can look up the word hubris and see my face). Again, technology raced past us. The coaxial was for television and video devices. We broadcast training over a dedicated channel. The CAT 5 was for the network connections for computers. Flash forward to today. The coax is barely used and the Wi-Fi network is under sized, overworked and not in all the right spaces. With the advent of YouTube, Netflix, Amazon and every other streaming service and content provider, no one watches TV and they all watch their own personal computers. That is one reason why you see a router jury rigged to a hallway wall on the second floor. A second reason for it was the fact that the walls are cement block. What they need today is HDMI cable and multiple routers.

I have to own this next one. Our city has hard water. I know this. When I built my house in 1990 I had a water softener installed. The neighborhood where this firehouse was built is served by a different water company. I mistakenly believed that the water would not be a problem. This resulted in the hot water boiler being replaced within seven years. Except it wasn’t replaced with another boiler. A much less expensive but commercially rated hot water heater was installed. There is never enough money in the maintenance budget to keep everything in tip top shape. Several dishwashers have come and gone. Faucets and shower heads don’t last long either. I’m writing this on St. Patrick’s Day. As they say in Ireland, Idjit!

The topic above can trigger the debate between cheap throw away appliances vs. commercial equipment that can take the daily grind of a firehouse. A topic for another day.

The upstairs of this firehouse only has the firefighter bedrooms and bathrooms. It is L shaped. The end of each hallway is all glass. As a result, the laminate on the locker doors has faded from wood grain to pink. In the future I’ll have to specify SPF 50 for the glass.

This was the first LEED firehouse we built. As a result, the bathrooms all had hot air hand dryers. Paper towels were out. It did not dawn on me that waiting for your hands to dry when the alarm just sounded does not work. Paper towel dispensers have been added.

Being a LEED building created another issue. Energy efficient lighting is the rule today. Occupancy sensors control a lot of lights now. Walk into a room and the lights come on. Walk out and a few minutes later they go out. This held true for the bathrooms. One problem – if it is the middle of the night, you don’t want all the lights in the bathroom coming on when all you needed was just enough light to see the toilet. It took a belt and suspenders solution. Actually, a sensor and timer solution. Per code, we couldn’t just yank the sensors out. But by adding a timer upstream from the sensor it could be disabled during the late-night hours. A low-level night light was added.

While we are on the topic of bathrooms, there was serious complaint about the fact that there is a single bathroom downstairs — not counting the chief’s and the captain’s which are inside their quarters. This surprised me. This was not on our radar during the design programming. With only two exceptions, none of our existing buildings had two restrooms downstairs. It took another conversation at another station built at the same time to understand. What we did not take into consideration was the travel time. I already mentioned that the building square footage had been reduced. Regardless, these were the biggest firehouses we ever built, except for one, and each one was two stories. Up until that point only one-fourth of our buildings had two floors. The rest of the bathrooms were already downstairs. Thinking of our other firehouses the restroom downstairs had a urinal and a toilet stall. Two guys could use the facilities at the same time. The new stations were ADA complaint. This makes them bigger but only single use. So, the recommendation would be to have multiple urinals in the bathroom or more than one restroom readily accessible on the first floor. This gets more important with age; the firefighter’s, not the building’s!

One thing I was happily surprised by was the floor finish. This was the first new building where we used concrete as the finished floor. We had already determined that carpet and tile were no longer appropriate for firehouses. We didn’t have the time or the money to clean them. I had remodeled a few older stations and tried different methods to resurrect what was the concrete sub-floor as the finished floor. We found a local company that would stain/dye the original concrete. It seemed to be working. We specified this process for the new firehouse. The floors looked good with very little evidence of wear patterns. The reason I was surprised was due to the fact the installer had just been trained and this was his first experience using this process. We did not know this at the time. It only became apparent when he was done. It did not look anything like the previous work I had contracted for. The other jobs showed some flair and artistry. This application showed mostly brush and roller marks with no attempt to blend them. It turns out the original contractor had started training independent installers who were then free to bid on jobs themselves. We got one of those. That is why I was surprised. Since it looked bad I assumed it would not hold up to the foot traffic. This influenced me to change the specifications for multiple sub-contractors, not just the floor finisher. Depending on the task at hand we require a minimum number of years’ experience or installations to be able to bid. We don’t let probationary firefighters make fire-ground decisions, rookie contractors shouldn’t make firehouse decisions either.

All the stations I ever worked in suffered from a lack of storage. I was determined to solve that problem. Whenever open wall space showed up in the design, I crammed cabinets, files, lockers or shelving into the space. As a result, at the top of the stairs on the second floor, there is a six-foot-long counter with drawers and doors underneath. I wondered what they used it for — apparently nothing. It was practically empty. In my defense, this firehouse has never been staffed to it full capacity. Someday they’ll thank me.

Our city is not a hot bed of crime. That being said, this building had a fenced and gated rear yard. Access was through a motorized gate that open by punching in the access code. There is an exit gate for the crew’s personal vehicles right behind the station. All it required was to approach the gate with your vehicle and the sensor would open the gate. So far, so good. So, what did we miss? There is no way for someone on foot to get out of the back yard except through the firehouse. How the hell did this pass our own fire code inspectors? I know it is not uncommon for certain regulations to be overlooked in a firehouse because we are professionals. That was not the case here. I’m not sure if we violated the Life Safety Code or not. Maybe I should check?

Before we leave the backyard, I did have a major success. Quite frankly, I am surprised I got away with it. You’ve already seen what senior staff did to the design program. But painting something with the Safety Brush makes a difference. The fire department pays the water company a flat rate to connect to any hydrant in the city whenever we want, regardless if it is for training or an emergency. Sometimes the nearest hydrant on the way home was not convenient or safe. I specified a pony or wharf hydrant in the back yard of all the new firehouses. It was next to the diesel fuel tank. One stop shopping. And like they say on TV, “But wait, there’s more!” Since we already paid for any water we needed, the specifications also called for that hydrant to be a direct feed from the street and not the house water supply. A one-time investment in pipe and we have free water for the rig. I’m a happy camper.

P.S. I chose the title deliberately. It might ring a bell for those of you of a certain age.

Here’s a hint. Sunday, August 17, 1969.

Jim McClure is the owner of Firehouse Design and Construction (FD&C). The mission of FD&C is “to help firefighters, architects and government agencies design and build maintainable, durable, and most importantly, functional firehouses.” McClure’s career in public safety spans almost 29 years. For more information visit, www.firehousedesignandconstruction.com, call 408-603-4417 or email jim@mcclure904.net.

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