Episode 13: Architecture for Firefighters


CarolinaFireJournal - By Jim McClure
By Jim McClure
01/12/2016 -

Three years ago I started this column to share my knowledge, experience and explain how to read construction documents. This issue I decided to randomly pick a floor plan and share my opinions of what I see. Hopefully, you see what I see.

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I have no idea where this firehouse is. I don’t know if this is the only firehouse in the town or is one of many. Nor do I know it’s age or history. It is not my intent to criticize the people or agency that live and work in this firehouse. Most of us are stuck with the buildings we have and decisions made by others. I am making “perfect world” observations. The second floor plan shows my suggested changes. I apologize for the rough drawing.

The drawing is inconsistent. In some spaces it shows outlines of the F, F & E showing shelves, beds, lockers and the kitchen counter. Based on my experience I have a strong sense that the building has been added onto. This thought is driven by certain adjacencies and the unusual square footage given to certain spaces. Let’s start at the front doors. If every construction dollar is precious, why would there be two sets of double doors at the entrance. A door not only controls wall space; it also demands dedicated floor space for the swing of the door and what is called circulation space beyond that. Those of you with fire prevention training know the formulae for the width of hallways leading to exit doors. Why would you double down on that space? I see no logical reason. The only answer I have is the architect wanted to make a statement. Those of you who have been following my ranting writings know I will call out an architect when necessary. I would like to see the front wall pulled forward six feet to line up with the rest of the building. That adds about 200 square feet to the building. That is at least one if not two more rooms! The additional cost would be incremental, not exponential. You could also put a passage door from the lobby into the single apparatus bay.

Beyond the doors is the reception lobby. At first glance it seems too big. Not knowing the number of staff it is hard to tell either way. They may offer multiple services from that counter.

Having two doors to the BC’s office seriously eats into the usable floor space. I get why they did it but since the room is only slightly larger than nine by 12 feet, it is cozy at best. Functionality comes into question. There is at least one door missing though from the lobby. At this point we do not know if the chief’s vehicle is in the big apparatus bay or the single bay on the other side of the lobby. Regardless, one of them needs a passage door. I cannot imagine the chief sprinting over a 150 feet counter clock-wise through the hallways to reach the big apparatus bay. Conversely, if the chief’s vehicle is in the small garage, where is the door? When I first looked at this I thought this might be a Display Barn for an antique rig but that only makes sense if the chief has a door right into the apparatus bay from the lobby. Worse case is the chief opens the small bay overhead door and then goes out the front door and into the apparatus bay. Weird but...

If the left pair of front doors were deleted the chief’s office can be pulled forward to the front of the building. Then the chief’s office could have a door from the lobby for the public and a door from the office to the apparatus bay. I would also pull the reception counter forward and move the operations office behind the chief’s office. If these rooms were going to have two doors, one is going to lead to the apparatus bay. The operations office can get away with one door from the apparatus bay.

The conference room is big. I hope it is wired as an EOC or alternate dispatch room. The way the building is compartmentalized it appears the public can use the space and still be separated from the crew quarters as long as the back door is locked. The double doors should open in, not out into the hallway. Floor space can be gained by moving the rear door to the other corner and swing it out towards the wall. I would also reverse the door swing of the door from the reception desk.

The two rest rooms in the hallway are a clue to its age or at least its latest remodel. Both of the bathrooms are ADA compliant. The dark line along the wall next to the toilets indicate a grab bar. Did you see it? The ADA Act became law in 1990. Therefore, that part of the firehouse was built or remodeled after that time. The fact that there is a male and female rest room indicates both genders are working in the administrative area and that there is an expectation of the public being in the building.

The two storage areas across the hall are good news, bad news regarding the location of the doors. The smaller one is perfect. The door is exactly where it should be. If it were in the middle of that wall you would have less shelving. The current plan allows shelves to run front to back along the other wall. Normally, you don’t have doors swing into hallways. It is a good way to get your nose broken. The “L” shaped closet could have its door swing out if it were hinged at the inside corner of the “L.” There would be no danger of anyone being hit; especially if you specified a window in the upper half of the door. You would then have more floor space for shelving. You should always design storage closets to the dimensions of the shelving you are buying. If you are building wooden shelves than that is not an issue.


Old Floor Plan(Top)
Room Identification

  1. Lobby
  2. Reception Desk
  3. Chief’s Office
  4. Small App Bay
  5. Conference Room
  6. Male & Female bathrooms
  7. Storage A
  8. Storage B
  9. Gym
  10. Unlabeled - I am calling it a Pantry
  11. Kitchen
  12. Central Hall
  13. Day room / Dining room
  14. Turnout Room
  15. Laundry
  16. Apparatus Bay
  17. Operations Office
  18. Unlabeled
  19. Restroom
  20. Storage C
  21. Storage D
  22. Dorms A, B, C, D
  23. Bathrooms
  24. Restroom
  25. Utility space


My Floor Plan(Bottom)
Room Identification

  1. Lobby
  2. Reception Desk
  3. Chief’s Office
  4. Small App Bay
  5. Conference Room
  6. Male & Female bathrooms
  7. Storage A
  8. Storage B
  9. Gym
  10. Unlabeled - I am calling it a Pantry
  11. Kitchen
  12. Central Hall
  13. Day room / Dining room
  14. Turnout Room
  15. Mechanical
  16. Apparatus Bay
  17. Can be one or two spaces
  18. Can be one or two spaces
  19. Restroom
  20. Laundry
  21. Decon
  22. Dorms A, B, C, D
  23. Bathrooms
  24. Restroom
  25. Utility space
  26. Operations Office

The gym is in a good location. This is a space that comes under the adjacency rule. You don’t want it near bedrooms, offices or other public spaces. The clanging of steel would be a problem. The double doors allow just about any type of equipment to be brought in.

Another adjacency space is the unlabeled room next to the kitchen. Because of its location and the built-in shelving indicated, this is a pantry.

The kitchen is a good size. It is close to 250 square feet. Let’s hope the appliances are commercial, the cabinets are firefighter proof and counter tops are stainless steel.

The wide hallway that stretches from the store room on the right to the bedrooms on the left is a tremendous waste of space. It is anywhere from nine feet to 12 feet wide. Remember, you are paying for every square inch of the building. I hope all that wall space is lined with F, F & E. Shift a wall, move a door and you have another bedroom or office in the building.

My experience is the combination dining and day room works for small crews of up to five, six people max. Once you have a truck and pumper crew and eight to 10 people counting the chiefs you need to separate the two spaces. Great rooms work in homes not firehouses. The cook(s) will make too much noise for anybody to use the day room for anything else.

The turnout room shows 24 lockers 18 inches wide. My experience says you need at least 24 inches of width for your gear. Of course this crew may actually have two 18 inch lockers, which would be great. The real problem is that the room is in the wrong location. The adjacency rules dictate it should be on an exterior wall, preferably a corner off the apparatus bay. The reason is ventilation. You can not always depend on exhaust fans to clear out the off-gassing from your bunker gear. They may not be turned on or they may be broken. If this room opens to the living space that is where the off-gassing will go. Bad idea. Bad design. If the space has two exterior walls you can build in large vents to create a flow-thru effect. If you are in a cold climate you may have to have shutters or doors that can be closed to maintain heat in the building. The turnout room could have been smaller. The space between the lockers can be narrowed by two feet each aisle. That is four feet times nine feet or a 36 square foot space for something else; i.e. heating system, hot water heater, electrical panels, decon or communications. In case you missed it none of those spaces are shown on the plans.

The laundry seems to be out of place and it is too big. I would place it in the working space of the building, not between the great room and a bedroom. I wouldn’t want to sleep with my head next to it. Logically, it should be next to the bathroom in the apparatus bay. The plumbing is already there. The bigger question is what kind of laundry is it washing? Is it for personal clothing, uniforms, kitchen towels or bedding? I hope it is not for turn outs. They should never be washed with any other personnel gear. Additionally, residential washers are not good on turnouts. If you have been to a trade show you have seen the commercial washers for firehouses. Maybe you have one already. If you do, you know that they need a beefier concrete base to anchor them down. You can’t just drop one off somewhere in the building and expect it to sit there and not vibrate across the room. This room can now be a home for the mechanical equipment but with the door outside. This way repair people can access it without going into the station. I would double insulate the common wall with the bedroom.

The apparatus bay is approximately 40 feet by 77 feet. The doors are 14 feet wide. There is space between the rigs and between the rigs and the walls. Of course if the walls are lined with hose racks and other equipment the space narrows quickly. But we don’t know that. But we all know that we will fill any empty space with something. This plan would not show the diesel exhaust but let’s hope they are there. We have too many firefighters dying of cancer.

What does the operations office label mean to you? Captain? Crew? Regardless it is a 100 square foot room in a functional location. The lack of windows can be an issue. Today’s rules refer to Daylighting. All living spaces have windows or skylights for natural light. This could have a skylight but that would only show up on the Reflected Ceiling Plan. Remember that from the Summer 2013 issue? As I said above I would move it. I would also expand it into the hallway for other purposes.

The passage door from the main hallway to the apparatus bay swings the wrong way. Here’s why. The first benchmark the public has about our service is the time it takes from the time the reporting party hangs up the phone until we knock on the door. If six firefighters are headed from the kitchen table towards that door the first one better have ahead start. Having all doors swing towards to apparatus bay saves a few seconds.

The unlabeled room off the apparatus bay could be a number of functional spaces. It could be a shop, decon space, mop room, bottle storage, hose or medical supplies. I list these because they make sense here and they don’t show up anywhere else. This is another room I would expand into the hallway. We still need space for the communications equipment, medical supplies, house supplies and strike team equipment.

The additional store room could be the decon room since the plumbing is right there.

The dorms are 12 feet by 15 feet. There is wall space available for three lockers 36” wide in each room. That means everyone gets a locker. Of course, when the relief or floater shows up they have no place for their gear. I would be inclined to put a door in the hallway at the beginning of the bedrooms. This is to mitigate the noise from the Day Room which isn’t far away. It would swing toward the apparatus bay.

Two and a half individual bathrooms are a good minimum. The largest one on the exterior wall is ADA compliant. The fact that they are labeled “Unisex” tells us there are female firefighters in the building or they are planning for female firefighters. Thinking down the road, the shower valves should be accessible from the opposite wall in the bedrooms. Spec a 16 inch access panel in the bedroom wall. Why you ask? Because if you use solid surface materials or tile the shower stall you will have to break into it to the repair or replace the shower valve.

You’re probably wondering how I was able to give you dimensions for this building when there is no scale listed on the drawing. Some parts of a building have standard sizes; doors in particular. First I used a compass on the passage doors. They were all drawn the same size. That meant they were anywhere between 32” to 36” wide. Using that same spacing I ran calculations on all the rooms using both numbers to see which made more sense. The clincher was the apparatus bay doors. If I assumed the passage doors were 36 inches the apparatus doors calculated out as 14 feet wide. The 32 inch door conversion did not line up with any normal apparatus door size.

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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Issue 33.3 | Winter 2018

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