Episode 11 — a Review

CarolinaFireJournal - Jim McClure
Jim McClure
08/07/2015 -

Episode #11

Well, its summer; schools out and everyone is thinking of a vacation at the beach or the mountains. You’re looking to relax and not do anything too serious, so nothing heavy from me this issue, just a little light reading. Here is a review and update of the last 10 issues in short bursts of topics and information.


Architect Selection

The Request for Qualifications (RFQ) should ask about any lawsuits. Double-check all referrals even if they are out of state. Sometimes they partner with other firms. Find out who actually did the work. Call fire department projects listed on their website but not listed as a reference. Talk to the firefighters who live and work in the building.

Design Program

Term used to define the required functions of the project. It should include estimated square footage of each usage type and any other elements that achieve the project goals.

During Schematic Design, an architect commonly develops study drawings, documents, or other media that illustrate the concepts of the design and include spatial relationships, scale, and form for the owner to review.

Two thoughts before you start this process:

  1. Sometimes it is easier to change the firehouse than change the firehouse culture.
  2. Firefighters will always find a way to use the building in a manner other than how you designed it.

Visit other fire departments, talk to the crews and steal their good ideas for your project. Remember, the level of detail is determined by the owner’s request and the project requirements. Contact the firehouse projects listed by the architects you did not select. I’m sure there was something in all of them you liked. Ideally you have done some of this already since you are paying for the architect’s time. Of course, if you were like me when I started, you don’t have enough information to ask the right questions; just like studying for my first promotion test.

Specifications Book

I went to the General Services Shops and talked to the carpenter’s shop, electrical shop, plumbing shop and the HVAC shop. Repair staff usually recommends things that make their job easier and I figured they had a better idea of what worked and what didn’t. I asked them what they wanted in the building. Sometimes the recommendation was simple and they suggested the most reliable item. The plumbing supervisor recommended a middle of the road faucet and shower brand because parts were always available and it could be repaired in the same day. The carpenter had a better hinge for our cabinets. The Euro style does not work in a firehouse. The electrician had lots of suggestions for parts and equipment.

Sometimes even though the item has the best service record it just cost too much. The best example of that are bi-fold doors. Everyone wants them, they have low maintenance demands but they cost so much more than overhead doors. A lot of departments can’t make that hurdle yet. I wrote about my app bay door problems in the Winter 2013 issue. Make sure that any section of the Spec Book that affects another section is cross-referenced. Otherwise it is like a box of Cracker Jacks, a surprise in every one. An example would be an electric powered gas valve. That is two different sections in the CSI format. If there is a conflict between the plan set and the Spec Book the Spec Book usually trumps.

You want to use any information from the manufacturer that describes its shape, size, material, components, operation and warranty. You need to show the things that make this item important to the functionality of your firehouse. Feel free to use the manufacturer’s data sheet. You have to find the items that separate this product from any others like it. If the item is that specific you do not even need to mention the product name. The specs speak for themselves.

Design development (DD) services use the initial design documents from the schematic phase and take them one step further. This phase lays out mechanical, electrical, plumbing, structural and architectural details.

Typically referred to as DD, this phase results in drawings that often specify design elements such as material types and location of windows and doors. The level of detail provided in the DD phase is determined by the owner’s request and the project requirements.

This is when your work really starts. You have to review every page of every submittal the architect sends you. You have to look at every page because something may have changed on any one of them, not just the ones you marked up last time. You have to compare them to the SD drawings. Does it match up with them? If not, why? What changed and why? All legitimate questions. Make sure the square footage of each room does not shrink during the design process. Double-check the room shapes. Rooms designed as rectangles stay rectangles and square rooms stay square. In addition to the previous plan sets, you may have to refer to previous emails, agendas, or meeting minutes to find your answer or support your concern. Your time to review this set is limited. After you have marked up the plans and written your comments, send it to the architect ASAP. The clock is ticking during this entire process.

The next phase is construction documents (CDs). Once the owner and architect are satisfied with the documents produced during DD, the architect moves forward and produces drawings with greater detail. These drawings typically include specifications for construction details and materials.

You will perform the same process as you did at the SD and DD level. The difference is there are a lot more pages and a lot more detail to review.

This is the time for the three Rs: Remember, Review and Respond page for page.

Here is a thought as you finish the design process; don’t let the architecture get in the way of the functionality of the firehouse.

For those of you who haven’t stopped reading and gone to the beach, I’m going to go over the subsections of the plans and construction process and add a few random thoughts.

Civil Pages

The most important comment I have here is to mark up all the civil pages that show the gas line, conduits, fire sprinkler lines, water lines, irrigation lines and sewer pipe. You need different colors for each one. This is for the all trades walk through prior to pouring any concrete. If you remember my comment in the Fall 2014 issue, I wound up with a roller coaster parking lot. The problem was not the slope; it takes very little to get water moving. The real problem was the drainpipes. As long as the pipes are sized for a 100 year flood you will only need a slight slope. Water seeks its own level.

Structural Issues

You won’t understand all the symbols so make sure you ask the architect and engineer to explain every one. Otherwise you may wind up with the steel H columns supporting the roof coming out of the apparatus floor and the rig has to park in a particular spot or the captain cannot open the cab door — my second project. Learn if there is a steel beam running at a 45 degree angle that will prevent a gas pipe from running through the wall. (That was the contractor and sub-contractor not paying attention.)


HVAC systems have a wide price range. Buying it is a one-time expense. Operating it is a lifetime expense. Compare the operating costs before deciding and invest in the future if you can. If using forced air systems make sure the air does not blow down on the head of the beds. Do not allow the design to include a thermostat sensor inside the duct work on the roof. It will read the exterior temperature and not the interior temperature. I know that sounds stupid but there are times it makes sense. If you are putting a new ducted system on the roof of an existing firehouse, budget for a new roof. If not the penetrations will leak. If you don’t realize it right away, you will when the mold shows up on the ceiling. Split system heat pumps have condensate pumps. They can be very noisy. Put the pump in a space where it won’t be heard in the dorms.

Plumbing Issues

Remember to spec hose bibs on all four sides of the building. If you put a pot filler spigot over the stove make sure it is high enough for the tallest pot. The sink needs to be big enough to wash the biggest pot. Stainless steel is the only appropriate material for a firehouse kitchen counter. Here is a fun trick if you have a two-bowl stainless steel sink with a divider with a flat top. If you shift the running faucet from one bowl to the other a blast of water will run right along the flat top and soak who ever is standing there. Not that I ever did that, honest. Install a solenoid that cuts the gas to the stoves when an alarm comes in. That way you won’t burn the place down when you get a call. Makes sure plumbing access panels are actually big enough for the plumber to work.


Specify that all electrical conduits come down from the ceiling and not up from the floor. That way you can demolish a wall and just move it and the electrical at a later date.  Inventory everything that needs to be plugged in for every room. You will be surprised. Here is a potential list for an office: desk phones, computer, printer, computer scanner, radio scanner, personal computers, cell phone charger, camera. You will have two or three of some of them depending on the size of your crew. It is probably double what the electrical engineer will spec.

I always asked for a double duplex outlet, (four outlets) wherever the engineer indicated a single outlet and added more of those. Some treadmills need 220 volts. Add outlets outside too. One or two of them should be on a switch. These are for the Christmas decorations. Our department had a decorating contest every year. Electric blowers are cheaper to buy and maintain than gas blowers. Prevent “night blindness” by only having enough lights come on to illuminate the path of travel to the truck. To prevent mold ensure that the shower exhaust fan runs by triggering it with an occupancy sensor. If you have an island sink with a garbage disposal you need an air switch to turn it on. You cannot accidentally turn it on. This is much safer.

Low Voltage

If there is more than one door with a doorbell, program different tones. Mount speakers on the App Bay ceiling between the rigs. 

If you have outside speakers, have a photocell turn them off at night. How you turn them on depends. The first day of the first new station we opened with automatic speaker switches quickly pointed out my error. I had spec’d a clock timer to turn on the outside speakers at 7:30 a.m. What happened next would have been comical in a movie. Not so much for the real characters. I forgot that between 7:30 and 8:30 a.m. there is a lot of radio test traffic. About 7:45 a woman came across the street in her pajamas and a robe. It was obvious she just got out of bed. She approached the first firefighter she saw out front and asked, “Is this going to go on all day?” A minute later, I was on the phone to the city electrician responsible for the firehouses begging him to get out there as soon as possible.

OK, time for you to put more sunscreen on.

See you next time.

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, www.firehousedesignandconstruction.com, call 408-603-4417 or email [email protected].
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