Can the COLORS of a Station Affect Mental and Physical Well-Being?

Part one of this series emphasized the need to consider the physical and mental well-being of the first responder when designing the fire station. One aspect of design that is lacking or misunderstood is the human response to color in the architectural space. 

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Part one described how the brain interprets a situation, space or event and then tells the body how to respond. This reaction affects emotions, energy, perception, diet, social interaction, strength and many other functions. Part two will review specific guidelines recommended for selecting colors that will aid in promoting well-being.

Avoid Typical Influences

There are three typical influences for selecting station colors that have been used in the past and are still used today.

Government Guidelines

Image One

The U.S. Air Force published a design guide in the late nineties that states: “colors and finishes should reflect professionalism, warmth and a strong positive image.” This guide also included a monochromatic finish board as a reference. Many station interiors today adhere to this color scheme. There are current government guidelines for station design but color is only mentioned as a safety feature and any aesthetics are left to the architect to decide.

Image one follows the color standards laid out in government guidelines but unfortunately is not motivating. Firefighters spend many hours in training, so their meeting room should be a space that will engage the mind and encourage learning. Image two introduces subtle color in the finishes that will better stimulate the brain

Current Trends

Image Two

“Color Trend” has been defined as a “direction” or “an emerging preference for a color or several colors.” White walls are an extremely popular trend in commercial design. Unfortunately, there are some common misconceptions about white walls that have led to the overuse of this color.

One concept is that white is a neutral color. The reality is that white will “jump out” as any other saturated color. It should be limited to accents, trim or ceilings.

Image Three

Another misunderstood concept is that white walls will brighten the space making it easier to see. Although it is true that more light will reflect into the space, this can cause an optical strain because of glare from high LRV (Light Reflectance Value). There are some areas where it is appropriate to use white, but they are very uncommon and should not be the norm. The apparatus bay is a good example of a space where a higher LRV is helpful.

Image three is an example of poor LRV ratios and an overuse of white. The blue-green color in image four adds interest and balances the warm colors. The kitchen is a favorite hang-out. It is a space for coming together in a family-type atmosphere which enhances team morale. It should be a comfortable yet energetic space that is welcoming.

Image Four

Color experts have described white walls as being clinical, empty, uninspiring and non-stimulating. As of yet, there is no evidence that supports the use of white or off-white walls as psychologically or physiologically beneficial.

The training room in photo five is not only under-stimulating for the brain, but sitting for hours in this bright space will have a negative physical impact. I modified image six to include eye-pleasing contrasts that will help the mind focus on learning. I purposely used neutrals because it is not uncommon for end-users to request them. With enough contrast variation, neutrals will not be boring.

Personal Preferences

These are actual reasons that have been given by clients and architects regarding the selection of paint colors. “It’s just paint, we can…”

  • Select it at the last minute
  • Come back later and re-paint
  • Let each person choose their favorite color for their space
  • Use white – it goes with everything and will brighten up the place
  • Use white – we don’t want to upset anyone who hates blue/green/yellow/grey

The color red is not only a historical color for the station, it is a color that many firefighters identify with due to tradition and familiarity. It’s no surprise that there is an excessive use of bright red throughout fire facilities.

A typical color scheme seen in many fire stations today includes red accents against white walls. Without other colors to balance the space, there is no adequate surface to provide rest for the eye. The International Association of Color Consultants teaches that extreme contrasts of light and dark (such as white and red) must be regulated to avoid constant adjustment of the iris muscles which is cause for undue stress. Because of the impact of such a saturated color, location and amount should be carefully considered.

Image Five

Additional Guidelines

Within each space, the purpose of the environment should be taken into consideration. For instance, should the room be designed to be welcoming, warm and inviting or should it focus on production, energy and movement? These two different effects are achieved using color, texture and lighting.

Finishes should also be chosen for specific functions appropriate to the space such as the apparatus bay, training spaces, living quarters, etc. A consistent theme can unite the facility with continuity that will aid in smooth transition from one space to another. Although finishes might greatly vary, the mind will register the change in atmosphere very quickly and acclimate accordingly.

Color harmony is imperative for minimizing stress. Color combinations are harmonious (or orderly) not because of personal preference, but because of the position of each individual color with regard to other hues in a scientific color system. Color harmony is achieved when the eye is no longer seeking to balance the color.

Image Six

Other Considerations

In his article “Designing Fire Stations to Attract and Retain Members,” Anthony Crocamo argued that “a spartan environment won’t attract new members or give current members much reason for staying on. Providing a comfortable environment for today’s firefighter is required.” He encouraged the banning of drab color schemes in the living and community quarters.

In an interview with Captain Mark Werner of Columbus, Ohio, Werner noted: “Busy houses have happier firefighters. There is no time to complain or dwell on events witnessed.” Since a daily routine doesn’t always include emergency runs, it is important to consider the design for the non-busy times. Monotonous spaces cause thoughts to turn inward. To better minimize stress, avoid these environments that tend to encourage unhealthy inner thoughts.

An awareness of the human response to color and an understanding of color and scientific color systems is essential when designing fire stations or any commercial space. Faber Birren, one of the best-known color authorities world-wide, sums it up in this statement: “Color in a man-made environment is far too vital to man’s well-being for its choice to be left to personal whim or fancy. Color has the ability to serve man’s physiological and psychological needs and to help keep him on an even keel in time of stress.”

Reducing stress levels of firefighters is beneficial for the individual and for the department. With this in mind, creating environments with a positive influence on physical and mental well-being should be a high priority in fire station design.

Karen Collins, IACC is a freelance designer in Pataskala, Ohio. She earned her BFA in Interior Design from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1992. After 18 years in the residential design and construction industry, she began working for JBA Architects as a commercial designer until 2020. After completing the required seminars developed by the International Association of Color Consultants in 2008, she was voted in as president of the board for the IACC-NA from 2013-2017. In 2020 she completed her thesis “Improve Firefighter Well-Being by Utilizing Color in the Fire Station” to become a certified color designer.
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