Don’t Get Lost in the Smoke: Navigating the Maze of Designing Your New Fire Station

While certainly exciting, the idea of starting a new construction project, and particularly one as complicated as a public safety facility, can often cause as much anxiety and tension as losing your path in a training maze. 


Large projects obviously demand a great deal of coordination, but the endless decision-making, detail planning and critical analysis that even a small project requires can easily overwhelm an unprepared department.

“What do I do first?” “How do we get from point A to point B?” “How much will it cost us?” “How long will it take?” “Who can I trust for good advice?” Like the disorienting smoke of a maze, these questions and more can quickly clutter your thoughts and your path, as you start moving toward a new building.

Therefore, the purpose of this article is to provide you with a safe and clear path through the maze of a new project. At the end, you’ll have a “laundry list” of some very basic issues that need to be considered as you proceed. Even if you’ve worked on a commercial building project in the past, despite the advantage you have from that perspective, it never hurts to refresh your memory about the obstacles you’ll want to avoid this time around! It would be impossible to answer every question you’ll have about your project, but if you know the major issues to address, the minor questions should be easier to answer. So, follow along and let’s find a clear path!

Obstacle 1 – Stations Require Land

That beautiful new station being planned — you are going to need somewhere to put it. There are many factors that may drive the approximate location of the new facility, such as population growth projections, community development or even ISO ratings. Once you’ve found a potential site that seems to fit those factors, there are still several key questions to ask.

What is the property going to cost?

There’s more to consider here than just the price tag. If the property is offered to you for free it may actually be an occasion to look the gift-horse in the mouth. Departments far and wide have been given really great properties in the past — but the reason they were free in the first place was because of the small fortune required to make them “buildable.” There is a great deal of truth in the notion that the most important part of your property is what’s below the dirt line. Buried debris, rock, bad soil, high ground water, multiple utility easements, abandoned underground tanks, etc., are all invisible conditions that may require you to spend thousands of dollars just to get the site ready to build. These potential obstacles have to be considered as a property cost and may be significant enough to point you to another location.

Obtaining a Phase I environmental report and soil borings can help you identify some of these problems in advance. Knowing the site’s history can also provide good indicators of what you can expect to encounter once the first shovel goes into the ground.

What exists on the site that I need to know about?

Once the property is yours, you need to get a survey. It’s important to understand that this is more than the boundary plat that came with the deed. However, the same surveyor may be able to provide you with a comprehensive survey for a good, fair price. Without exception, make sure the surveyor is going to produce the drawing with a computer-aided drafting software. The station’s future designer will need the survey in order to provide their services. While the survey will need to include many items, a couple of the major things that need to be included are as follows:

Boundaries: These are the property lines with all the Meets and Bounds (that’s surveyor talk) identified.

Topography: This is represented by the squiggly lines that run all over the survey. It reveals the elevation and slope of the property. Shown topography is just as important for sites in the relatively flat piedmont region as it is for sites in the foothills and mountains, although the degree of precision is more critical on sites with steeper slopes.

Utilities: Water lines or wells, sewer lines or septic tanks and drain fields, gas lines, electricity and power poles, telephone lines, fire hydrants, easements, etc., all need to be shown in order to tie into them — or avoid them — with your new facilities.

Major Trees or Tree Lines: You may be part of a community that won’t let you cut a limb without permission, or you may live where clear-cutting is simply a way of life. Either way, it is better to avoid the destruction of major trees when possible. Permitting jurisdictions that are more “restrictive,” will require a landscape survey in order to justify your future landscape plan, or lack thereof. Identifying the major vegetation will enable the designer to use it as an attractive design feature.

Existing Structures: If the new property has existing structures on it, you need to plan to upgrade them, avoid them or demolish them. No matter which you choose to do, the survey needs to show their locations and elevations. Existing structures that are to be upgraded or demolished will have to be certified “environmentally friendly” ahead of time. Part of that is — you guessed it — the “A” word: ASBESTOS. (Ouch! You should have thought of that before you bought the site!) Failing to address asbestos, if it is an issue, is a major legal problem! If you don’t address it, and it is disturbed, everyone in a 50-mile radius can be slapped with major fines. That includes the owner, the architect and the contractor.

Finally, if your project is a renovation-and-addition to an existing building, now is the time to determine if the project will require additional property acquisition. Resolve this before you have the survey performed if at all possible, because once acquired, the new property will need to be added to the total survey.

Obstacle 2 – Stations Require a Designer

Being an architect, I would of course have much preferred to put this first on the list. Humor aside, the point here is that it is never too early to involve an architect. Notice I said involve, not necessarily hire. Any architect worth their salt will be happy to give you some direction, advice, and input even before you agree to start writing checks. At this point we have already discussed property, but keep in mind that an architect can help you evaluate property before you purchase or invest in it.

Without question, the architect you choose needs to have plenty of expertise and experience in the area of Fire/EMS facility design. Think of it this way: just because a dermatologist is an M.D. doesn’t mean you want him performing open heart surgery on you! Ultimately, any architect should be able to design an adequate station with enough practice. But is your goal to simply have an adequate station that “kind of” meets your needs? Do you really want to be the one paying your architect to learn a new building type? Let someone else do that. Instead, find an architect that has extensive, successful experience with public safety projects. Check their credentials on this and scrutinize their experience. More than anything else, you won’t regret this decision.

Obstacle 3 – Stations Require Funding

The two most important parts to any project are time and money – and time will take a back seat to money just about every day of the week. Before you get into any serious investigation, design or construction, it is imperative that you have an idea of your budget. Where will you get the necessary funds? When will you need it? How much of it is available now? These are all questions that you need to begin answering early in the process.

You may work for a City Fire Department. You may work for a County Rescue Department. Or, maybe you’re a Volunteer or work in the Fire/EMS Industry. The funding issue, of course, is as varied as the organizations that you belong to, but there are still some uniform, basic concepts that hold true. Essentially, money utilized on a project can be divided into two groups: Construction Costs and Soft Costs.

Construction Costs

Construction Costs are those costs that you pay the contractors for actual “brick and mortar”. These costs that you pay for the materials and labor of the construction are usually the largest of your expenses. The money spent here is usually paid to between one and four contractors, depending on whether the contract is single-prime or multi-prime.

Soft Costs

Soft Costs are all the other things you will spend money on. This can include land, testing, financing, design fees, furnishings, fixtures and equipment (FFE), etc.

Funding your project requires a reality check — it is unlikely that you will be successful in visiting your City/County Manager, Fire Board, etc., asking them for a large sum of money to build a station, and then walking away with that money in-hand. In our current economic environment of very tight state and local budgets, finding money to build or renovate can be very difficult. What does this mean for you? Put simply, time. You need to be having this conversation with your money provider(s) for years. Instead of requesting a lump sum, convince them to budget a set amount for your project each year and you will be off to a good start. This holds true even if you plan to get your major construction funds from bonds or lending sources.

Getting the ball rolling can often be accomplished with smaller financial outlays. For example, after you secure the land, you can hire an architect to carry the project through a partial design. The architect can help you program a list of your station’s needs, give you an approximate size for the new facility, and provide design development level drawings. Here again, remember the earlier point of hiring an architect with the necessary experience to provide these services to you efficiently and effectively. This level of design should result in rendered site plans, floor plans, exterior elevations (or perspectives) and accurate construction cost estimates for a fraction of the Architect’s total fee. Then, you can use these drawings as fund-raising tools to do marketing. You are your project’s best salesman. Consider: You have to convince the city manager, board, commission or community that the department needs a new facility. These renderings and cost estimates will excite them — a picture is worth a thousand words, after all — and prove to them that you have done your homework.

Alternatively, you can also have your architect complete a full design package. This will carry the design all the way through construction documents, which include specifications and drawings. The benefit here is that this will yield the most accurate cost estimate and you will be ready to build immediately once funding is available. Without spending a dime for construction, you will be ready to jump into that stage.

Obviously, the best route is to have enough finances planned so that you can design, bid and build without stopping. Typically, this traditional approach will save you the most time, and money, in the long-run.

Obstacle 4 – Stations Need a List

Be honest with yourself. You already have a mental list of needs or you would not be considering a new station in the first place. A written version of this list is something that you can easily compile very early in your process. The more time you spend thinking about it, the better it will be. To that end, for the benefit of you and your architect, there are three lists that you should consider developing:

Current Spaces and Activities: If you are going to relocate to this new facility — or add to your existing — you already have spaces that you are using now. List each one, how big it is and how you use it. Why is this important, you may ask? Simply, you often don’t realize all the different things that you do in the same space until you write it down. You certainly don’t want to build a new facility and not accommodate an activity that you do routinely. Further, how many offices do you have? How many sleep rooms? Where are you doing training? Even more importantly, don’t forget to list your personnel. Be sure to list all your vehicles and their lengths. Are you holding any outdoor training procedures now? What are they and what kind of staging areas do they require? Finally, if you happen to have the original blueprints or design plans of your existing facilities, add these to the package.

Current Needs: This is a different list than your Current Spaces. Otherwise, you wouldn’t need a new facility! List every space and activity that you can think of that needs to be accommodated today. If you think you know how big the spaces need to be, show that also. And don’t forget storage. Chances are that you are storing things in a remote location. Now may be a good time to plan that space into the new building and bring your equipment, supplies, etc., back home to the station. Also, list the equipment that you don’t already have but do need. Things like hose dryers, SCBA units, extractors, compressors, ice machines, etc., all absorb space in the plan and should be considered. Don’t be afraid to include spec sheets on specific equipment you have or want.

Future Needs: Admit it — you are already thinking about buying that new apparatus two or three years from now, or the personnel that are budgeted to be added to your staff next year. Maybe you’re anticipating a consolidation of two services that are not housed together now, like fire and EMS. One popular trend in station design is adding a police sub-station to remote fire stations. The point of this list is that it is wise to plan the building’s needs, use and function for as many years in the future as you can predict or afford. No one has a crystal ball, of course, but make your best attempt at planning a facility that will accommodate your department’s future.

*Incidentally, our design firm offers a free Fire/EMS Design Handbook that incorporates sample lists like these for your use and benefit, available upon individual request to

Exiting the Maze – Successful Navigation

Planning a new fire/EMS station project doesn’t have to mean losing your way in the maze of factors and decisions. Proceed carefully with this article’s suggestions in mind, and you’ll be surprised at how painless the initial process can seem. Start today on a few of the items discussed here. Most of them don’t require hiring a design professional. And be deliberate — if your group or funding authority sees that you are laying a good foundation for your planned facility, they will take you much more seriously. In turn, that will usually mean realizing your completed project sooner, rather than later. So, start planning now, and with a level-headed approach you will still have hair left at the end of the project — apologies to those already without. Remember, every maze has an exit!

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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