The foundations to building your firehouse

CarolinaFireJournal - By Jim McClure
By Jim McClure
01/10/2013 -

There have been numerous articles over the last several years discussing designing and building firehouses. These articles, while informative, are talking about Big Picture stuff. What are missing though, are the details; and we all know the devil is in the details. I have been involved in the design and construction of firehouses since 1997. One of the many things I have observed is that most people do not know how to read plans, including firefighters. Building a new firehouse is usually a once in a career event. So it is understandable that firefighters do not understand the complete process that gets you to the ground breaking, let alone a ribbon cutting. How can you go from sitting around the kitchen table dreaming of a new firehouse, (or complaining about the one you’re in, your choice) to rolling out of the new building on that first call, if you do not understand the architectural process or speak the language of architects? In other words, what happens if you can’t understand the specifications or read the plans?


I am going to spend the next several issues sharing what I know. But before you can construct any building you need a foundation. So before we get to reading and understanding the plan sets there are several foundational items in the process that you have to understand first.

What is a Program Statement?

Building any firehouse starts with a Program Statement. A program is a written document that explains how you want the firehouse to look and function. Think of it as a blueprint for the blueprints. While the program can describe both the exterior look and the interior space, the emphasis is on the interior. It is an inventory of the building room by room. The program will spell out the desired square footage for each room, sometimes with specific dimensions and shapes, sometimes with a more generic layout. I learned the hard way that some rooms in the firehouse function better as rectangles and others worked better as squares. Just calling out a minimum square footage is not enough. A program will also list details for each space. It will call out finishes for the floor walls and ceiling. The height of the ceiling is specified. It will list what type of doors will be in the room. Lighting, HVAC, plumbing, electrical and communication considerations are also covered. Each space in the building will have two pages; one showing a floor plan drawing and the other listing everything above in text form.

Adjacencies are always listed. There are some rooms that are always next to each other, the kitchen and dining being the most obvious. There are also rooms that you never want next to others, i.e. exercise rooms next to or above bedrooms. Once you start thinking about it, you realize there is logic to the placement of all the functional areas of a firehouse. Go ahead and take a minute to think about it. I’ll wait.

But if you don’t take the time to develop the Program it will affect your response time in more ways that one.

Creating the Program Statement

Creating a Program Statement takes time. It took our department five months. Our agency hired an architect experienced in firehouse design. We had a committee of five uniform personnel. One of the committee members actually trained as an architect but chose to be a firefighter instead. We all met regularly. The architect staff asked us very detailed questions, which the five of us had to go out and find the answers to. The five of us had to come to a consensus before relaying the information to the architect. At the end of the process we had five documents; An Executive Summary, a Single Company program, Two Company program, a Battalion Headquarters program and Specifications list. Our original program statement went from 27 pages to over 250 pages after we hired an outside firm to guide us through the process. It continued to grow as we started building and added more detailed information to the program.

Construction Specifications Institute

The next thing we will look at is CSI — no, not the TV show. The Construction Specifications Institute ( is an organization started in 1948. Its mission is to standardize the language of building specifications. CSI has created a numerical index that imposes discipline on the design and construction industry. These are the numbers you see as you read a spec book. Once you get used to it, you know that anything in the 2000 series refers to site work. The specifications for all things wooden will always be in the 6000 numbers. The all-important communications section is always 17000. A well-written book will also cross index items that may effect or be affected by other trades and disciplines.

One of the architectural firms I worked with uses the CSI numbering system for the notes on each page of the drawings.

Look at the two examples. Once you are familiar with the CSI system, you will at least know that it is plumbing related when you see 15000 numbers. But no two architects use the generic numbering system the same way. Number 15 does not mean the same thing twice.

You can consider the spec book the Bible for the project. You can’t fill those plan set pages with details without knowing what some of them are. This document is the written version of the project requirements. It lists the Scope of Work and other specific requirements such as testing, submittals and warranties. Testing could involve soil types, location of bedrock, contaminants and water level. Additional testing may be required for manufactured components such as concrete mixes, steel framing and welding.

The spec book also dictates the details of the warranties. Not all warranties are created equal. Typically we request a one-year warranty on all parts and performance. But some components come with longer warranties from the manufacturers. You need to know that and write those exceptions into the warranty section of the specifications book. You also need to know that some guarantees are only effective if there is a maintenance program in place. Specifying a 30-year commercial roof does no good if you do not perform the maintenance required by the manufacturer.

While the architect and their sub-consultant will contribute info to this book, it is in your best interest to make sure you agree with them. I have had architects and engineers specify light fixtures, plumbing fixtures and apparatus doors that had no business being in a firehouse. The more research and information you have to contribute to this book the better your project will be. A sub-consultant may list a particular type of alerting system because he used it in another department. You should ask “is it compatible with my current system?” The architect may use a spec from a firehouse they did for another department assuming it will work for you. If it is in the spec book, it is up to you to approve it. Do your homework.

As you all know we do not all do things the same way. What works for department “A” may not work for department “B.” Case in point, some departments have a master panel where you can open or close all apparatus bay doors, some departments, like mine, only have individual buttons at each door. Nothing wrong with either one, it’s just the department’s culture and the building has to match your culture.

Here is an example. The architect on one of my firehouse projects wrote specs for two different overhead apparatus door companies, nothing wrong with that except neither was the preferred door. They had used them before and just did a cut and paste from a previous job into our spec book. Apparently they did not see the memo specifying a specific third door company. I, unfortunately, missed this during the review process and did not catch it until we were bidding. What ensued was 12 days of e-mails and phone calls flying back and forth trying to correct this with a reluctant architect. They added the correct door but only as a single line reference. The rest of the spec reflected the details of the doors I didn’t want. As a result, when the submittal showed up from the door contractor, I spent several weeks battling everyone including some of the city staff to correct this problem. I won but we still had problems. The apparatus door contractor already had the contract but was not a vendor for the preferred doors. Since he already had the contract, we couldn’t just throw him out. What happened was a shotgun wedding between the contractor and the manufacturer. They rarely turn out well.

So why was this door so important to me? Our department had a history of malfunctioning overhead doors. Over the years we had accumulated every brand there was and none of them seemed to last. Out of frustration, I contacted the apparatus door company that repaired our roll up doors. Contractors hate having to return to a job to fix things, especially new things. I asked him, “What door do you spec to minimize call backs?” Without hesitation he had an answer. I asked why that door. He pointed out that the rails and stiles were bigger that any other brand that he knew. Having the beefiest overhead doors in the business meant they would not sag when up, they would stay aligned and not jump the track. Worked for me.

I cannot stress enough how important submittals are to the success of the project.


Even though you have specified the components going onto the building, you need to verify that is what the contractor is installing. That is why we have submittals. The contract requires the general contractor to submit a document detailing what products and processes they will be using. These submittals will start flowing from the contractor to the architect and government entity in charge as soon as the contract is signed. It is in your best interest to review every one. Just because your specification reads the “Binford 3000 door opener” does not mean the contractor has to install it. He can substitute an “Or Equal” product. Those two words can cause you no end of pain and suffering.

It is up to you as the end user to ensure you get what you need. One way is to write “Performance Specs.” While they may name a particular product, what is more important is the actual specifications of the product; what it is made of, dimensions, what national industry and testing standards it conforms to name just a few. If the substituted OR Equal product does not match you can reject it. The overhead door I mentioned above is a result of using performance specs. I don’t have to specify the brand, just the technical information, especially the dimensions. I do put the name down just so the contractor does not have to spend time finding the product.

So why would a contractor put themselves through this scrutiny? The sub-contractors send in most product substitutions. Usually it has to do with money. The substitute is probably less expensive. Another reason is they may be more comfortable with one plumbing parts company or electrical parts company than the one you specified. Or as was the case with the roll up door contractor, he did not have a relationship with the specified manufacturer. In addition, the general contractor’s office may not even look at the substitutions and just pass them through. They have staff in their offices whose only job is to move paperwork back and forth and there is a lot of it. Understand now that constructing a public building will kill a couple of trees.

Next issue we will start a multi-issue discussion regarding the plans themselves.

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, or call 408.603.4417.
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