From dalmatians to decontamination — 40 years of fire station evolution

CarolinaFireJournal - By Ken Newell
By Ken Newell AIA, LEED-AP, NFPA
01/11/2012 -
Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. During that time, we’ve been blessed to work on the design of over 200 stations and the pre-planning of over 700 stations. As I think back on all those station projects, I realize how much things have changed. A lot can change in 40 years! My shampoo of choice use to be Head and Shoulders ... now it’s Mop and Glo! But my appearance is not the only thing that’s changed during that time. Station design has changed even more. image

Much of the change in station design has been a natural evolution resulting from better fire industry equipment and practices. Everyone has recognized that the modern fire station is a very specialized facility, not just a garage in which to keep big trucks. One of the most significant changes is the recognition that a specialized facility requires a designer that specializes in that building type. Departments will greatly benefit by including an architect with extensive expertise in station design on the project team. This realization has resulted in a category of station designers who can provide the entire design package for your project, or who can benefit the local design team that may lack this type of experience.

The most pronounced change in station design over the last 40 years is also the most obvious — construction costs. Our average fire station project in the 1970s cost $50 to $60 per square foot. Currently, the average cost is $180 to $190 per square foot, with much more volatility over the past decade.

The trend of more and more volunteer departments transitioning into combination or full career departments has impacted the types of spaces necessary in the facility. The addition or increase in “living spaces” such as sleeping quarters, toilet/shower rooms, and daily-use kitchens was necessitated by the department transitions. Even something as simple as where the firefighter parks their personal vehicle, as well as how they enter the building is modified by whether they are a volunteer or career starting their shift.

As municipalities have sought ways of providing better, all-around public safety coverage, and as departments or agencies have looked for ways to share the ever-increasing construction costs, co-location of multiple public safety agencies into one facility has steadily increased. Securing different portions of the building for the multiple occupants then becomes a serious design consideration.

When the “second occupant” is EMS, there are often separated sleeping quarters to keep one set of responders from waking the others with their calls. There are also dedicated EMS supply rooms. Sometimes there are even separate dayrooms and kitchen facilities for the two different groups. When the second occupant is law enforcement, the line of separation is usually more pronounced. More commonly you will have the fire department on one side, police department on the other side, and shared spaces in the center of the facility. Additionally, the law enforcement component is frequently a simple satellite presence comprising a single office and separate toilet. Often, these satellite stations are not manned continuously.

The regulatory changes of the past 40 years that impact the design of the facility seem to only increase yearly. The “essential facility” building code classification requires a more rigidly constructed structure than ever before encountered by public safety. For example, over the last decade fire sprinklers began to be required in the sleeping quarters, and are now quickly becoming mandatory in all spaces. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1991 proved to apply to both public and private sections of the station. Elevators and handicapped facilities have become increasingly present in stations due to the ADA. Regulations regarding storm water retention and quality, landscaping, and oil separation for vehicle drainage areas have added to the site sizes, requirements and costs.

Departments have become more aware that a good rescue facility should have a life span of at least 50 to 75 years. Since no one can predict how the built components will need to function in 50 years, efforts are now being made to make the facility and the spaces therein as accommodating as possible for modifications and growth. I encourage departments to be mindful of station areas that will likely need to grow, and to properly locate and design these areas so that expansion can be more easily accomplished. Even interior walls are more likely to be constructed of materials that will easily accept future wiring, conduit, and future technologies.

The past 10 years has witnessed the explosion of “Green Building,” or sustainability. The fact that some U.S. fire stations that have been in service for 100 to 150 years proves that good design is sustainable design. For the sake of the contemporary definition, “sustainability” represents design and construction practices that significantly reduce or eliminate the negative impact of buildings on the environment and occupants.

Some municipalities are now requiring their new stations to be certified through one of the Green Building processes, such as LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). Many more are simply taking a proactive approach to incorporating as many sustainable practices into the station design and construction as economically feasible. The practical application of modern sustainable efforts proves to be a great means of stewardship and leads to financial benefits in the life-cycle costs of the facility.

Another evolving design characteristic of new stations over the past few decades is the aesthetic response to the community. Designers and departments are paying much more attention to the surrounding ‘built’ environment as they develop the appearance of the new facility. From the overall building size and shape to the material selections, newer stations tend to visually fit better into their neighborhoods.

During the 1980s, public safety training centers became a major part of our specialty. Stewart-Cooper-Newell architects quickly learned that many of the training evolutions and opportunities provided in training centers could be inexpensively incorporated into the station design. Twenty-five years later, it has become common for stations across the country to now make it a priority to include training props into their station design. From training towers, to pump-test pits, to ladder training, to confined space rescue, to rope rescue, the opportunities are only limited to the imagination. The classroom-style training room has also become common and often serves a dual function as a community room.

Whether it is in a large, metropolitan location or a remote, rural setting, the security of the station and site has become a more important issue. This has resulted in many design changes to the facility design, such as the proper zoning of public and non-public spaces, electronic controlled access to portions of the building, and fenced/gated drives for apparatus return and staff parking. The days of allowing the public to wander into open bay doors and through the facility are quickly disappearing by necessity.

One might think that the implementation and advancement of information technology and communications systems would reduce space requirements in the facility, but the opposite has proven to be the case. IT rooms (with proper cooling), wiring closets, cable trays, chases, etc, have all complicated the systems accommodations in the station. Planning for the growth and evolution of these systems over the life of the station can be difficult, but is important.

The average piece of apparatus from 40 years ago makes today’s equipment look like a monster truck. This has resulted in the need for taller and wider bay doors, along with the increased aisle space and cab-tipping height in the apparatus room.

We also see the desire for more drive-through apparatus bays than in decades past. This not only impacts the size of the apparatus room, but it normally requires a larger site in order to provide driveways around the building. Many departments that build drive-through bays don’t utilize them as such ...some back in from both directions. Nonetheless, most departments want the flexibility provided to them with drive-through bays, as long as the site can accommodate it.

Dealing with work place hazards in the station has made significant impacts to the station design. Some of these efforts have been driven by governmental regulations, but many of the efforts are the result of conscientious firefighters looking out for their own. This effort has added elements to the station such as better exhaust ventilation in the bays, PPE storage rooms instead of hanging racks in the bays, proper location of the ice machine, emergency showers and eyewashes, and the provision of proper extractors and dryers.

Decontamination rooms are also becoming a staple of station design. Regulations now mandate that each Department have a decontamination facility, including extractor, and wash basins. With the growing emphasis on saving budget dollars and decreasing times, departments are now opting to include a decontamination room in each facility.

Over the last forty years, one of the greatest impacts on station design has been the ever-increasing role of the female firefighter. While the ratio of male to female firefighter varies greatly with each department, most departments now have females working along-side their male counterparts. Some departments have opted to ignore any cause for gender separation in bunk areas, locker rooms and toilet rooms. But most have incorporated some level of separation in these and other spaces. From low partition walls in bunk areas and two separate locker rooms, to single-individual sleep rooms and toilet/shower rooms, some departments are still struggling to find the approach that suits them best.

While it would take much more space than this article to discuss the complete evolution of station design over the past 40 years, what we have visited represents some of the prominent changes we’ve witnessed. We consider ourselves blessed to have served those who serve us all for these four decades. Here’s to 40 more years! I can’t wait to see what they bring!

Ken Newell, AIA, LEED AP, is a senior principal with Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects. Newell has personally been involved with the design of over 175 Fire/EMS station projects and fire training facilities since 1988. He is also a regular presenter at many national and regional station design and fire conferences. He can be reached by visiting or emailing [email protected]. Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects can be reached at 800-671-0621.
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