A 50 Year Celebration of Station Evolution

Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects is celebrating our 50th anniversary this year. Over those past five decades, we’ve been blessed to work on the design of nearly 400 fire/rescue stations and the pre-planning of over 1,000 stations. As I think back on all those station projects, I realize how much things have changed. In 1971, Disney World in Florida opened. Gas cost 40 cents per gallon. The microprocessor was invented. And “Dirty Harry” made our day. A lot has changed in 50 years! Station design has changed even more.


The Sumter Public Safety Complex is an example of saving money by combining fire and police projects.

Much of the change in station design has been a natural evolution resulting from better fire industry equipment and practices. While some laypersons still believe that a fire station is just a large garage in which to keep big trucks, the more informed have recognized that the modern station is a very specialized facility. One of the most significant changes is the recognition that a specialized facility requires a designer that specializes in that building type. Many departments have greatly benefitted by including an architect with extensive expertise in station design on the project team. This realization has resulted in a category of station designers who can provide the entire design effort for your project, or who can benefit the local design team that may lack this specific experience.

THE most pronounced change in station projects over the last 50 years is also the most obvious — construction costs. Our first fire station projects in the 1970s cost $50 to $60 per square foot. Currently, the average cost in the southeast region is $350 to $425 per square foot, with much more volatility over the past two decades.

The trend of more and more volunteer departments transitioning into combination or full career departments has impacted the types of spaces necessary in the facility. The addition or increase in “living spaces” such as sleeping quarters, toilet/shower rooms, and daily-use kitchens was necessitated by the department transitions. Even something as simple as where the firefighter parks their personal vehicle, as well as how they enter the building is modified by whether they are volunteer or a career member starting their shift.

As municipalities have sought ways of providing better, all-around public safety coverage, and as departments or agencies have looked for ways to share the ever-increasing construction costs, co-location of multiple public safety agencies into one facility has steadily increased. Securing different portions of the building for the multiple occupants then becomes a serious design consideration.

When the “second occupant” is EMS, there are often separated sleeping quarters to keep one set of responders from waking the others with their night time calls. There are also dedicated EMS supply rooms. Sometimes there are even separate dayrooms and kitchen facilities for the two different groups. When the second occupant is law enforcement, the line of separation is usually more pronounced. More commonly you will have the fire department on one side, police department on the other side, and shared spaces in the center of the facility, along with electronic controlled access for all. Alternatively, the law enforcement component is frequently a simple satellite presence comprising a single office and separate toilet. Often, these satellite PD stations are not manned continuously.

The regulatory changes of the past 50 years that impact the design of the facility seem to only increase yearly. The “essential facility” building code classification required a more rigidly constructed structure than ever before encountered by public safety. Fire sprinklers became required in the sleeping quarters, and are now quickly becoming mandatory in all spaces. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1991 was adamantly resisted by public safety building owners. But numerous court decisions have now made clear that the ADA applies to both public and private sections of the station. Elevators and handicapped facilities have become increasingly present in stations due to the ADA. Regulations regarding storm water retention and quality, landscaping, and oil separation for vehicle drainage areas have added to the site sizes, requirements and costs.


The past 20 years has witnessed the explosion of “Green Building” – also known as sustainability. The fact that some U.S. fire stations that have been in service for 100 to 150 years proves that good design is sustainable design. For the sake of the contemporary definition, “sustainability” represents design and construction practices that significantly reduce or eliminate the negative impact of buildings on the environment and occupants. The specific sustainability goals or regulations continue to evolve each year.

Career stations tend to require smaller kitchens than volunteer stations. This is a recent example from replacement Station No.5 in San Francisco.

Some municipalities or departments require their new stations to be certified through one of the Green Building processes, such as LEED — Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Many more are simply taking a proactive approach to incorporating as many sustainable practices into the station design and construction as economically feasible. More and more, sustainable requirements become infused into the applicable building codes, which have led some municipalities and jurisdictions to reduce the requirement of some prescribed programs such as LEED. The practical application of modern sustainable efforts proves to be a great means of stewardship and leads to financial benefits in the life-cycle costs of the facility.


Another evolving design characteristic of new stations over the past few decades is the aesthetic response to the community. Designers and departments are paying much more attention to the surrounding “built” environment as they develop the appearance of the new facility. From the overall building size and shape to the material selections, newer stations tend to visually fit better into their neighborhoods.


It has become common for stations across the country to now make it a priority to include training props and opportunities into their station design. From training towers, to pump-test pits, to ladder training, to confined space rescue, to rope rescue, the opportunities are only limited to the imagination. The classroom-style training room has also become more common and often serves a dual function as a community room.


The average piece of apparatus from 40 years ago makes today’s equipment look like a monster truck. This has resulted in the need for taller and wider bay doors, along with the increased aisle space and cab-tipping height in the apparatus room.

We also see the desire for more drive-through apparatus bays than in decades past. This not only impacts the size of the apparatus room, but it normally requires a larger site in order to provide driveways around the building. Many departments that build drive-through bays don’t utilize them as such — some back in from both directions. Nonetheless, most departments want the flexibility provided to them with drive-through bays, as long as the site can accommodate it.


Over the last three decades, one of the greatest impacts on station design has been the ever-increasing role of the female firefighter. While the ratio of male to female firefighter varies greatly with each department, most departments now have females working along-side their male counterparts. Some departments have opted to ignore any cause for gender separation in bunk areas, locker rooms and toilet rooms. But most have incorporated some level of separation in these and other spaces. From low partition walls in bunk areas and two separate locker rooms, to single-individual sleep rooms and toilet/shower rooms, some departments are still struggling to find the approach that suits them best.


One might think that the implementation and advancement of information technology and communications systems would reduce space requirements in the facility, but the opposite has proven to be the case. IT rooms (with proper cooling), wiring closets, cable trays, chases, etc, have all complicated the systems accommodations in the station. Planning for the growth and evolution of these systems over the life of the station can be difficult, but is critical


Dealing with work place hazards in the station has made significant impacts to the station design. Some of these efforts have been driven by governmental regulations, but many of the efforts are the result of conscientious firefighters looking out for their own. This effort has added elements to the station such as; better exhaust ventilation in the bays, PPE storage rooms instead of hanging racks in the bays, proper location of the ice machine, emergency showers and eyewashes, and the provision of proper extractors and dryers.

The exterior appearance of the new Beaufort, North Carolina station was designed to complement the historic nature of their downtown vicinity.

Speaking of decontamination, nothing has impacted station design any more significantly over the past two decades than the realization of the impacts that contaminants and carcinogens have on the health, safety, and welfare of the emergency responder. The “Hotzone” issue has spurred an entire effort on how to capture, contain and eliminates the contaminates that are generated at the rescue grounds and even at the station itself. An evolving number of zones, rooms, and procedures are now recommended to properly address this issue.

Health and Safety

Emergency responder health, safety and welfare not only applies to the physical wellbeing, but the mental and emotional wellbeing also. With PTSD and suicide rates skyrocketing among responders, studies are being performed and procedures practiced that significantly impacts station design. The recent pandemic has also resulted in numerous new standards applied to the proper configuration and systems preferred. Design practices that resulting from these and other health issues are showing results that should only increase as they are further implemented.


Whether it is in a large, metropolitan location or a remote, rural setting, the security of the station and site has become a more important issue. This has resulted in many design changes to the facility design, such as the proper zoning of public and non-public spaces, electronic controlled access to portions of the building, and fenced/gated drives for apparatus return and staff parking. The days of allowing the public to wander into open bay doors and through the facility are quickly disappearing by necessity.

Departments have become more aware that a good rescue facility should have a life span of at least 50 to 75 years. Since no one can predict how the built components will need to function in 50 years, efforts are now being made to make the facility and the spaces therein as accommodating as possible for modifications and growth. I encourage departments to be mindful of station areas that will likely need to grow, and to properly locate and design these areas so that expansion can be more easily accomplished. Even interior walls are more likely to be constructed of materials that will easily accept future wiring, conduit and future technologies.

While it would take much more space than this article to discuss the complete evolution of station design over the past 50 years, what we have visited represents some of the prominent changes we’ve witnessed. We consider ourselves blessed to have served those who serve us all for these five decades. A big “thank you” to all of you and here’s to 50 more years! I can’t wait to see what they bring!

Ken Newell is a Principal and Partner with Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects. Since 1988, he has been directly involved in over 300 of the firm’s 425+ Fire/EMS and Public Safety projects. Newell has earned a national reputation for the programming and design of public safety facilities that are functional, practical, and budget-conscious. He has also consulted other architects on the planning and design of over 125 public safety projects spanning 27 states. Because of his extensive experience in Public Safety design, he has been invited to speak at many state, regional, and national Public Safety conferences since 2000.

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