Fire Station Design: the single story vs. multi-story firehouse

CarolinaFireJournal - Ken Newell
08/01/2012 -

“Should our new station be two floors or one floor?”

It’s not unusual for this question to be brought up during the preliminary stages of public safety station design, and it’s one that we’ve heard many times over the years while working with officials on new and renovated stations. If this is your question, there are numerous factors to consider before making a final decision. And, as those who work in emergency services know full well, the best decisions are well-informed decisions. Therefore, let’s examine a few key factors that you need to consider.


The recent Wrightsville Beach Public Safety Complex is multi-story due to the coastal flood-prone location.

Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)

Many station owners have the impression that the ADA does not apply to public safety facilities, or at least doesn’t apply to the living quarters of public safety facilities. That simply isn’t true! The ADA applies to all public buildings – including Fire/EMS stations. It is certainly possible that, in the past, a local building inspector has allowed a station to be built without all (or part) of the station following the guidelines of the ADA. However, each building owner can be held liable by the US Department of Justice for not following the ADA. How does the ADA’s application affect our discussion of multi-story stations? It affects them in two specific areas: elevators and accessible stairways. You must assume that any department member or visitor can be temporarily or permanently disabled. Disabled persons cannot be separated from activity areas by providing similar areas on the ground floor.

There is one important side note regarding the ADA. It is a federal law that is required in every local jurisdiction. However, besides being combined with required building codes, the most common means of ADA enforcement results from your station being sued by anyone who discovers that you have not followed the ADA in your facility.

Reasons for Multi-Story Stations

Site. The earliest fire stations were built in very crowded cities and on very small pieces of property. Because of this, the only choice was to build multi-story. The actual fire fighting equipment was located on the ground floor while the living quarters were overhead, and thus we have the long and notable history of the fire pole. The same scenario happens time and again today. The available site is so small that all building and site requirements simply cannot be accommodated on ground level. If this is your situation, you often have no choice but to go up. Keep in mind that some rural sites are so steep that filling the needed area to one elevation would be cost prohibitive. In this case, a smaller area of the available property can be leveled to build a multi-story station that would possibly be less expensive than a single story facility.

Renovations. If an existing, multi-story building is to be used for the station, it may very well be necessary to renovate the upper floors in order to house programmed space. Or, a multi-story addition may have to be added to an existing building due to a lack of usable property.

Aesthetics. Often a station owner wants to respond to adjacent buildings or achieve a “designed look” that requires an unusually tall structure. In reality, this only makes sense if the tall structure can be designed to accommodate usable space.

The recent Lincolnton Fire Headquarters and City Hall represents multi-story additions to facilities that are already multi-story.

Nostalgia. As expensive as it may be, some owners go into the design process wanting to build a multi-story station for nostalgia’s sake. This reflects back to the history of urban stations as discussed previously. Further, without seriously considering the costs, some owners simply have an insatiable need to slide down a fire pole when the alarm bells ring. Note that mechanical and storage mezzanines do not constitute a multi-story station. Only “occupied” space falls under the building code definition for multi-story. Also, some stations have floor levels that may step just a few feet from one building area to another. As long as occupied spaces are not stacked, the building is still considered as having only one story.

Reasons for Single Story Stations

Building Maintenance. Multiple floors usually require duplication of some spaces such as toilets, janitor’s closets, etc. Many two-story stations have their showers on the top floor along with living spaces. But to keep things in perspective, imagine coming back from a call, covered in soot and filth, and having to trek through two floors of the building to get to the shower.

Cost. The single most important reason to build single story is budget. Except for a couple of the previously stated scenarios, it is almost always less expensive to build out rather than to build up. There are two main reasons for this cost difference.

The first reason relates directly to the ADA. The cost of an elevator for two floors is usually between $40,000 and $60,000. Two remote stairways will occupy approximately 800 square feet. The elevator and equipment room will occupy roughly 200 square feet. Totaling 1,000 square feet at, say $190 per square feet, those remote stairways and equipment rooms will cost $190,000. So you are spending over $230,000 just to move up and down in the building. This expense would not be necessary on a one-story station and that same funding could be used toward other critical expenses.

The second reason is code-required fire separation. The major fire separation for a one-story station is the single wall that separates vehicles from occupied spaces. If you have occupied spaces above the apparatus bays (for instance, from our example earlier, living space and showers), then you will be required to provide fire separation between floors as well. And unfortunately, vertical fire separations are never inexpensive.


There are certainly several legitimate reasons and occasions where building a multi-story station makes the most sense. If you must build multi-story, proceed knowing the reasons behind your decision and why that’s your best option. However, if cost is your driving factor, and none of the legitimate concerns for multi-story construction apply, a single story station is likely your best choice for efficient, effective station design.

Ken Newell, AIA, LEED AP, is a senior principal with Stewart–Cooper-Newell Architects, an award-winning firm whose growing resume includes architectural and consulting services for fire departments and municipalities in 23 states across the US. Mr. Newell has personally been involved with the design of over 175 Fire/EMS station projects and fire training facilities since 1988. For more information visit, email [email protected] or call 800-671-0621.
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