Getting Started: The Basics of Fire Training Facility Design

CarolinaFireJournal - James Stumbo
James Stumbo
08/07/2015 -

When the Call Comes

When the public calls 911, they not only expect a timely response of emergency personnel, they also expect the personnel to be highly trained to deal with their specific emergency. A state of the art training facility is a key link in the chain of training these personnel to respond to and meet the public’s need in their critical hour. 


Buncombe County Training Center master plan rendering.

This will be the first of two articles discussing the basics of Public Safety Training Facility design. This article will discuss the value of starting the project with a comprehensive Master Plan and the follow-up article will examine the various components that comprise a state-of-the-art training facility. 

Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects is fortunate to have been involved with the planning and design of over 20 public safety-training facilities across the southeast. The majority of these projects started with the creation of a comprehensive master plan. A well-conceived master plan allows for you to prioritize and phase the project, getting the most out of your available land, and establish a budget. Further, the master plan will help ensure that all stakeholders are identified, represented and heard throughout the project. Ultimately, the initial master planning, programming, and design of your public safety training facility, whether a single building or a full campus, will ensure that it supports the needs of its occupants and users for many years to come. 

This photo of Fort Smith’s burn building is typical of a pre-engineered burn building.

Identifying the End Users,
Prioritizing and Phasing the

The two keys to starting any training center project will be identifying the end users and identifying the needs of those end users. The first question will begin to set the course for the second question and is very important; is the facility going to be a fire training facility only, or will it also have law enforcement, emergency medical services or possibly other municipal needs — for example municipal vehicle driver training such as buses or refuse trucks?

There are many advantages to bringing in additional end users as the potential for additional funding sources can increase the size and/or diversity of the training grounds, improving the ability to train individually or with other agencies. After the end users are decided, it is very important to “program” or list each and every function or training scenario that must occur on the training grounds, along with any physical structure that might be required to carry out the training. This would range from driving tracks or pads to burn buildings, tear gas structures, shooting ranges, classrooms, offices and a host of other possible structures.

Setting the Budget

Once all the facility requirements have been identified, the project budget can be established. A master plan can be used to affirm the budget in two ways. If you have a pre-determined budget, a master plan can define the size and variety of components your center can afford. Without a pre-determined budget, a compilation of all stakeholder wish lists has to be used to determine how much money will be needed to complete the training facility. Many times the budget does not reflect the entirety of all the training structures desired so the master plan will have to incorporate a Phasing Plan to establish when different components will be built.

Sandhills Community College started its training center design with a comprehensive master plan that spanned multiple phases over several years. The master plan was used to establish a budget and phasing schedule, which was then used to raise the funds needed for future phases. The master plan also allowed for the civil engineers to plot roadways and elevations for specific components that would be required in upcoming phases.

Phase I consisted of gaining access to the site and constructing the drafting pits. Phase II involved the design and construction of a residential Class-A burn building, a drill tower and grading in preparation for future structures. When they have the budget to complete Phase III, it will include the construction of a commercial burn building, a driving pad and possibly a shooting range.

Cape Fear Community College Public Safety Training Center nestled between two wetlands.

We are currently working with Isothermal Community College on the master plan of their new public safety-training center. Several of the stakeholders wanted both a traditionally constructed (masonry) Class-A burn building and training tower. However, the budget wouldn’t allow for both of these to be constructed, it was a choice of one or the other.  They would be able to afford both the Class-A burn facility and the training tower if they used a combined pre-engineered steel structure.  After much debate, they elected to utilize the pre-engineered system and build a combined structure.

The Buncombe County Training Center is another great example of using a master plan to “phase” a project. The design and construction of the entire training center occurred over a five-year period. Phase I included site work for the 35-acre site. This included moving 500,000 yards of earth due to the site’s mountainous location, which allowed for an expansive driving range. This created a suitable site on which to build subsequent phases of the project and created the opportunity to properly grade the site for future additions.

Phase II included the design and construction of all the training components, including the Class-A and Class-B burn buildings, the training tower and several other training structures. The Buncombe County Center also includes a high-angle extrication pad for vehicle rescue scenarios and a smaller training building designed to mimic a cell from the prison adjacent to the training site. These components were included in the original master plan and designed and constructed during Phase II of the project. Finally, Phase III was the design and construction of a 41,000 square foot classroom building. 


While master planning the City of Marietta, Georgia Training Center, it became apparent that having a fire sub-station included on the site was the first priority. The site would have to accommodate a functioning fire station and incorporate all the essentials needed for quick response times. 

The Marietta master plan also revealed the need for a shooting range to be incorporated in a later phase. Because there is an elementary school adjacent to the training center site, it became a priority to pre-determine where the range would be located, both for safety reasons and public perception. We needed to “site” both the fire station and the shooting range, and phase the rest of the training center around these two components.

Marietta, Georgia Training Center Plan phased around two priorities, a fire sub-station and a shooting range.

Getting the Most Out
of Your Available Land

A few years ago we were working with the City of Fort Smith, Arkansas on the master plan of their new public safety training complex.  The site was surrounded by an existing landfill and only had access off a rural highway. The city initially wanted to build the first component of the training center — the Class-A burn building — near the highway. Their reasoning was that it would be a number of years until they could afford to add more components, and that building the Class-A burn building near the highway would allow for the most economical initial construction costs and for ease of access. 

After we completed the master plan, which included allocating space for a large driving track, offices and classroom facility, a drill tower and a shooting range, along with numerous other structures, we realized the initial Class-A building burn building actually needed to be deeper into the site. If we hadn’t completed the master plan first, the city would have built the initial Class-A burn building near the entrance to the site and it would have eventually made maximizing the entire site more difficult. 

Similarly, the public safety-training center at Cape Fear Community College is built on an 11-acre site nestled between two wetlands.  Completion of a comprehensive master plan allowed for a wide array of training resources — including a 300 by 500 foot driving pad used by three different stakeholders — the college’s truck driving program, the Basic Law Enforcement Training program (BLET), and the firefighter training program. 

As you can see, a comprehensive master plan is paramount to the design of a training facility of any size. Before constructing your project, make sure you and the design team prioritize and phase the project, master plan the site to best utilize your available land and establish a budget. In our next article, we will examine the various components that comprise a state-of-the-art training facility. 

James Stumbo, AIA LEED AP BD+C, NFPA is a Senior Principal with Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects. He is at the forefront of modern design for public safety training facilities, and has led seminars at national conferences. Stumbo has nearly two decades of experience working side-by-side with municipalities and higher education institutions as well as consulting other architects on the design of cost-effective fire stations, police stations and public safety training facilities.
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