Fire stations: looking to save the ‘Benjamins’

CarolinaFireJournal - By Robert Tutterow
By Robert Tutterow President, F.I.E.R.O.
07/05/2011 -

Due to the economic and political landscape, most fire departments are seeking ways to save money — hopefully without sacrificing service. Whether for new or existing stations, there are often overlooked long-range savings opportunities in the costs of building, operating and maintaining fire stations. Few people realize that the cost of facility maintenance (maintenance, utilities, and replacement furnishings) far exceeds the initial construction costs.


The following table illustrates the life cycle cost of facilities:

  • Land: 1-2%
  • Design: 1%
  • Construction: 20%
  • Original furnishings: 6%
  • Replacement furnishings: 4%
  • Operation/Utilities: 16%
  • Maintenance: 29%
  • Interest on construction loan: 24%

How can these costs be minimized? Perhaps you are lucky and there is no construction loan, or maybe your land is free, or maybe you have no payroll costs. Nonetheless, all departments have design, construction and sustainability costs. As the table illustrates, the “operating” costs (and this does not include apparatus, equipment, or personnel) are more than double the original cost of the building. These costs must be budgeted annually and are not necessarily discretionary budget items.

There are many, many ways to minimize these costs. If you are building or renovating a station, the design and materials selected will have a direct impact on the life cycle costs. Often communities are required or obligated to use a local architect to design or renovate their station. Smaller communities may not build a fire station for decades. Hence, there is no base-line knowledge for the project. There are very few architects with experience in designing fire stations. Of course, an architect will lead you to believe that he or she is very capable of doing the work, especially in a time when 25 to 40 percent (depending on the area of the country) of architects have no work.

Fire stations are unlike any other structure. They have both residential and commercial elements. Consider what functions a fire station might be: garage, dormitory, repair shop, classroom, shower/locker room, restaurant, gym, office building, community center, hazardous waste area, de-con facility, training facility, laundry mat, warehouse, communications center, museum, etc. Combining these elements is not for the novice.

It is most important that your architect have experience with fire station design, or at least will subcontract with an experienced architect, to help with your project. And, this is just a sampling list. As fire departments start to engage in this process, they always discover that the more they know — the more they need to know.

Fire stations are an integral part of every community. They must last for decades. And if there are mistakes, they are lived with for decades. Most are funded by public money and/or donations. Maximizing the investment and minimizing the life cycle costs should be fundamental guiding principles. Do the homework and get educated if you are going to build or remodel. Likewise, do the same to minimize the costs of maintaining your existing stations. Money spent on maintenance, especially if it can be avoided, is money that can be spent on service delivery.

An excellent opportunity to learn more is at the F.I.E.R.O. Fire Station Symposium Nov. 14-16, 2011 at the Omni Charlotte Hotel. The leading fire station design architects, along with fire service personnel who are experienced in maintaining fire stations, will be giving presentations and networking with the audience.

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