The kitchen is the heart of the station

CarolinaFireJournal - Jim Stumbo
Jim Stumbo AIA, LEED-AP
01/11/2011 -

A fire station, or as many refer to it, a fire “house,” is more than a building built to house fire apparatus, sleep rooms and large Lazy-Boy recliners. It is truly what the second name refers to; it is a “house.” Where I, and most of those working to support our families go to work and then go “home” afterwards, those in the fire service go to work and live at the fire house for a period of time. As we have heard many times, “The kitchen is the Heart of the Home,” it is no different for the fire department.


But what makes a fire department kitchen? What items do we need to consider when designing the kitchen, and is it a “commercial” or a “residential” kitchen? This article will examine these items, along with a number of others.

The question that is probably asked the most, and unfortunately does not have an overly clear answer is; do we need a commercial kitchen hood? To answer this we need to refer to section 507 of the Mechanical Code and ask a number of questions. First of all, will the kitchen be used for commercial purposes? If the answer is yes, a commercial Type I exhaust hood will be required, regardless of whether you have commercial ranges or residential appliances.

A Type I hood —many mistakenly refer to this as an “ANSUL® system”; however, this is simply a brand name not a type of hood — is the more expensive type, the one typically found in restaurants, it is designed for cooking appliances that, as quoted from the code, “produce grease or smoke, such as occurs with griddles, fryers, broilers, ovens, ranges and wok ranges.” This hood generally will have a fire suppression system, ventilation and make-up air system and will be interconnected with the fire alarm for the building.

How do you define a kitchen as a commercial kitchen? This is where it gets a bit more difficult. Some jurisdictions will define this based upon the occupancy of the building, i.e. if it is not a residence, it is a commercial facility and therefore the kitchen is to be addressed as a commercial kitchen. Others will look at it more in the light of what we believe the code intends, that is, how the kitchen will be used.

Is the intent that it will be used for residential purposes or as a “commercial food service establishment” such as the definition of a commercial cooking appliance refers to? Generally, we would think of the fire station kitchen, being used by its occupants to cook three meals a day for its occupants as a non-commercial use. It will be up to your architect to have this discussion and understand early on in the project what the local code reviewer is going to require.

But be ready, in South Carolina more and more jurisdictions are requiring the Type I hood in fire stations regardless of the type of equipment, while in North Carolina there is a specific code exception that allows a residential grade hood over a maximum of two residential ranges with a maximum of four burners each for “dwelling units, churches, schools, day cares, break areas and similar installations.” Most jurisdictions will look favorably on a fire station as falling under this exemption.

Another area that fire departments need to be aware of that might require a ventilation hood is a dishwasher. Most departments are not using a dishwasher that will require one; however, if the department installs a commercial dishwasher that is not an under-counter or is not a chemical sanitizing unit, then a Type II hood may be required. This Type II hood is similar to the Type I discussed above, but is normally not required to have a fire suppression system.

The commercial versus residential categories will also impact you in one other significant area. If you are considering a commercial kitchen, you will need to plan for separate hand washing, food preparation and clean-up sinks. Generally this will mean three sinks, several of them stainless steel with sideboards.

One area that garners a lot of attention in designing the fire station kitchen is how we handle the different shifts. If your department is like many we work with, Shift A will not trust Shift B or C to leave their supplies alone. How many times has the firefighter responsible for cooking the upcoming meal thought that he had all the required supplies and discovered that someone has used half of the flour or the remaining onions that he had saved for the chili? To help the department with these situations we will recommend providing separate shift food lockers (and yes, this means lockable!) and line up separate shift refrigerators along the wall.

What about the actual materials used to build the kitchen? Let’s make sure that the architect has detailed and specified materials that will make your jobs as firefighters easier, helping with clean up and long term maintenance.

How many times have you visited a neighboring department and seen plastic laminate peeling off of the kitchen counter tops? Maybe a more durable material for your counter tops should be considered; how about solid surface counter tops or stainless steel? And do not stop with just looking at the counter top; make sure you consider the cabinet, also.

Are you using solid stained wood or do you have a plastic laminate cabinet? Consideration should also be given to the wall and floor materials; again, make sure you have materials that are durable and easy to keep clean. Can we install ceramic tile on the walls in the areas of cooking appliances or food preparation, hard tile as opposed to vinyl tile or sheet vinyl on the floors?

Do not forget to look up. Have a solid ceiling painted with a high quality paint or use a lay-in ceiling tile that is designed for use in a kitchen, which by normal use is a warmer and more humid area at times.

Another item that we cannot forget is that your kitchen will need to meet all of the accessibility requirements. The portions of a kitchen usually affected are the height of your counter tops, sink heights and access, access to appliances and access to storage. The accessibility codes requires work surfaces for the disabled to be no higher than 34 inches, therefore, the kitchen design needs to accommodate that height and also the fact that almost all residential appliances are designed for a 36 inch counter.

Until the appliance manufacturers begin to offer units that work with a 34 inch height, we will need to continue to raise or step counters up for these appliances. Sinks are another area that will need to be accessible; at least one will have to be at 34 inches and have clearances to be able to roll a wheelchair underneath. This may mean having two sinks; one that is accessible, and one that is up at 36 inches and provides the deep bowl that is preferred.

The main items to remember with the appliances is that the range or oven controls will need to be accessed without reaching across the burners; therefore, no controls at the back of the range or oven, only on the side or on the front.

The refrigerator has to have both the freezer and the refrigerator section accessible. This means that at least 50 percent of the freezer shelves need to be within the required 54 inch reach range; this requirement is best met by providing a side-by-side refrigerator as opposed to a unit with the freezer compartment above the refrigerator compartment.

Lastly, I would like to share some final thoughts on miscellaneous items. Remember, safety first! Statistics have shown that in fire stations more fires start in the kitchen than any other area. Be sure to consider some form of automatic shut-off for the cooking appliances in case of a call coming in. Hit one button as you run from the kitchen and everything is immediately shut off. No worrying if the pot of chili that has been simmering all day is still cooking!

If your appliances are not commercial, make sure that you are specifying very high end residential with stainless steel finishes and heavier duty. Do not let the architect forget to include ice maker connections for your refrigerator(s), even if you are installing a separate ice machine. If you are installing a gas oven, be sure that the architect includes any gas regulators needed and that there is room behind the oven for it; you may need a recessed box. There is nothing worse than moving in, installing the range and discovering that it cannot slide all the way back because there is not enough room for the connections.

Be sure that ALL the equipment you want in your kitchen is accounted for: Is there enough room for the microwave? Do you want a large Bunn coffee maker? Is there room for it and do you have water connections for it? Kitchen Aid mixer? It takes counter space. How about a pass-thru for serving to an adjacent training room? Do you want to close off between the top of the cabinets and the ceiling so it does not collect dust or make an extra tall cabinet to store those items you will use only once a year?

I hope this helps you to begin to think through some of the opportunities and challenges you may face as you begin working with your design team to design your new fire station and specifically its kitchen. With careful attention to the materials, the design and the codes, you can be assured to make the kitchen of your new station the heart of the fire department.

Jim Stumbo, AIA, LEED AP is a senior principal with Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects, and leads the firm’s design studio for Fire and Emergency Training Centers. Since 1999, Mr. Stumbo has been involved in the planning and design of over 75 Emergency Services Training Centers and Public Safety Facilities. Visit, or e-mail [email protected], or call 800-671-0621 for more information.
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