Firehouse Redesign

This report is based on my visit to the Northland Fire Protection District encompassing the towns of Oaks Village, Laverna, Noghes and Upton stations. Additionally, I spent time at the headquarters building and the apparatus repair shop. The purpose of the visit was to assess the condition of the building inventory. A number of health and safety elements were considered. Diesel exhaust and mold being two prominent concerns. Exhaust capture is the first line of defense in cancer prevention for the fire service. Proper ventilation reduces mold. Adequate fitness facilities at each station is another issue. A fourth area of concern is privacy. All employees should feel comfortable whether they are using a restroom, locker space, showering or sleeping. Further considerations are; age of the buildings, potential maintenance issues, functionality and ADA compliance. Expectations today are that all public areas in a firehouse need to be accessible. That would include the offices, publicly available restrooms and ADA parking space with the dedicated path of travel from the parking area to the exterior door.


Oaks Village Station

This station is the largest in the district. Although it is a single story, it is approximately 10,000 square feet. While the layout of the building presents challenges, the size of the building gives us opportunities. My biggest concern is the CMU (concrete masonry unit) wall on the exterior side of the apparatus bay. With no access to building records and with the understanding that the building was built by the volunteer firefighters originally. We cannot quantify the structural integrity or more importantly, the seismic integrity of that wall. Without the structural engineer’s calculations as the basis for the construction technique, it isn’t possible to safely and comfortably rely on that wall caring its load through a major earthquake. Suggested retrofit for this problem is the use of fiberglass reinforced panels; commonly known as FRP. This product was originally designed for wet rooms and sanitary locations, dairy barns for existence. Engineering studies have shown that gluing FRP (fiberglass reinforced plastic) to a concrete block wall creates shear value where there was little to none.

Ironically, the FRP solves a second problem. This CMU wall has experienced efflorescence on its interior for some time. While not a health hazard, it is a maintenance issue. Efflorescence is caused by moisture in the block migrating to the surface and leaching minerals. The fiberglass reinforced panels can be glued directly to the block walls, transforming it into a shear wall.

A structural engineer should be consulted for the design work. A nationwide company that provides this product can train local installers.

Firetrucks are not getting any smaller. The current standard for the width of apparatus bay doors is 14 feet wide and 14 feet high. This building’s doors are 12’ x 12’. This station has three doors in the front. From a seismic standpoint, the firehouse has a 40-foot hole in in the front of the building. The structural engineer would have to be engaged to design a bracing system that would keep the building from racking during an earthquake and preventing the fire trucks from exiting. The design in all probability would be a steel frame skeleton mounted on the interior or the exterior of the apparatus bay. This work would be designed with the reinforcing of the CMU exterior wall.

This work would give the district an option. Instead of three bays, the doors could be reframed to the current 14-foot width. This would result in only two full size bays in the front and the third bay sized more for a car, van, or pickup truck. This option may also require retrofitting of the roof framing and supports in the interior of the app bay. Another option for part of the third bay would be to build an enclosed turnout room. This would be forward of the mezzanine structure but still leave enough room to back-in any of the above-mentioned vehicles. The principle here would be to separate the turnouts from potential diesel exhaust exposure. Best practices are to build these rooms on an exterior wall to allow for natural venting in addition to electrically powered exhaust fans. The structural engineer can provide guidance in cutting out some of the CMU to install air vents.

The district can choose to leave the doors as they are. This would mean it would always have smaller fire trucks at the station. The question becomes, what do you give up in functionality with a smaller firetruck? The useful life of firehouse is much longer than the useful life of a firetruck.

Regardless of which choice is made, seismic retrofit would have to be done whether it was for 12-foot openings or 14-foot openings.

Currently, the exercise space is on a mezzanine in the apparatus bay. This could subject employees to diesel exhaust. And it is probably not too comfortable in summer. I recommend clearing out one of the two spaces beneath the mezzanine and relocating the exercise equipment there. This space should have a source of fresh conditioned air. The door connecting it to the apparatus bay should have a proper gasketed seal. Daylighting in this space could be achieved with a window on an interior wall or skylights.

This firehouse sits right at the end of the curve on Route 20. This creates a blind spot for both private vehicles traveling south on the road and fire trucks trying to exit the fire station in either direction. The simplest solution is to install a traffic signal north of the station. This would not need to be a full three-color light. And it does not have to flash all the time. A flashing yellow light that is triggered either by the dispatch alarm to the station or by the crew once they are leaving the station. Power for the light would have to be hardwired at its location but the signal to turn it on could be done wirelessly. Discussions between fire administration and the station crews could determine the appropriate methodology for turning the signal off. In all likelihood a timer would accomplish this. The responding crews would have to be mindful of that ticking clock.

While we are on the subject of the front apron, I need to address an issue of fire trucks making a U-turn to be able to back into the station. Because the office space projects forward of the apparatus bay, the driver has to be mindful of the roof overhang. On average, the ceiling of the cab creates a blind spot eight feet off the ground for the driver. Something as simple as a tennis ball suspended seven feet from the ground can solve the problem. The tennis ball will be in the driver’s field of view and will not encumber the vehicle otherwise.

This station is blessed with an abundance of interior space. This appears to be a legacy of the volunteer fire department. There are two extra offices in the front and a large meeting room at the rear of the building. Additionally, these spaces are connected by an extra wide hallway. What the station is missing is privacy. There is only one official dorm and one bathroom. This is a standard that is very outdated. Fortunately, there is a fix for this that does not require major surgery to the building. At the rear corner of the dorm just outside the exterior wall is where the utility lines run to the kitchen. A second bathroom could be built in this corner of that room. There is enough space for the personal lockers to be moved into each of the bedrooms. Thinking long-term, the extra wide hallway could be narrowed to create more space for the bedrooms, lockers and bathrooms. Creating ensuite bedrooms with their own bathrooms solves all privacy issues. No one can be walked in on if you have not unlocked the door. Having all the lockers in that same bedroom does cause a problem, namely access to the locker if you’re not the one in the room. The solution is to have the lockers built into the wall between the bedroom and the hallway. These lockers have doors on both sides. At change of shift the incoming person can retrieve their uniform and change in a bathroom or in another room in the firehouse.

When all this work is being done space needs to be found for an ADA restroom. Remodeling any of the rest of the space will trigger this requirement.

I will leave it to the firefighters who work in this building to decide if they want to keep the decorative stone wall.

Due to the size of the meeting room this station has the ability to host public events. If these events, whether for the public good or as a fundraiser, require food I would suggest an upgrade to the kitchen. There is another and actually more important reason to upgrade the kitchen. Firefighters come in contact with lots of sick people. Even with the best protocols, germs and viruses can be brought back to the firehouse. Having surfaces that can be not only cleaned but disinfected easily is a must. The 21st century standard for firehouse kitchen counters is stainless steel. It is used in restaurants for a reason. It is extremely durable and easy to clean. It is a long-term investment.

Maintaining finished floors in a firehouse is a never-ending task. Neither carpet or linoleum tile standup to the rigors of its occupants. Ceramic tile is subject to cracking for a number of reasons. Both carpet and linoleum require maintenance, which to be done right requires mechanical equipment which requires maintenance. My recommendation is to just to strip the building of its tile and carpet. The concrete floor that is now exposed should be polished by a company that specializes in this concept. This eliminates the need to provide vacuum cleaners and floor buffing machines. There are only two things you can do to a polished concrete floor; dry mop and wet mop. No strippers, no cleansers, no waxes are needed. There is a small tradeoff with concrete floors. You may find the need for sound deadening if all four walls and ceiling are hard materials. Acoustical tile in suspended ceiling frames can help with this issue. Sound deadening panels attached to the walls help also.

(NOTE: I did not have access to the roof and cannot make any recommendations regarding it.)

Laverna Station

This building is a two-story metal frame, metal skinned building. The first floor is comprised of four apparatus bays. All four bays are drive-through. They are not all the same dimension. The two primary bay doors are 11 feet high and 12 feet wide. Secondary bay doors are 10 feet high and 11 feet wide. Due to the pitch of the roof line and the difference in the doors I suspect this building was built in two phases. The larger primary bays house the first line response rigs. The secondary bays are primarily storage, including fire trucks. There are columns in the apparatus bay carrying part of the second-floor load. These are positioned between the fire trucks in the primary bays. There is a wall with a passage door that separates the primary bays from the secondary storage bays. The station has a turnout cleaning extractor mounted on the apparatus floor. This firehouse has a 200-amp electrical panel serving the building. The label states this is 120v-240v – 3 phase. The label also states for copper or aluminum wire. I recommend opening up the panel to see if aluminum wire is inside the building. The firehouse is backed up by a generator. The rating plate reads 45KVA, 120/240 volts, 187.5 amps and is single phase. Having a backup generator capable of powering an entire fire station is another best practice. Having emergency power to the entire building and not just the essential elements of the firehouse is important because in the event of a disaster the firehouse may also become a de facto gathering place, shelter or command center. In the case of larger disasters either Cal Fire overhead teams or FEMA personnel could be garrisoned in the firehouse.

The living space for the Lucerne Station is upstairs. The entire second floor above the main apparatus floor is meeting space. It is approximately 58 feet deep and 50 plus feet wide. Again, this reflects the building’s origins as a volunteer fire station. It also explains why the cooking equipment in the kitchen is a commercial stove with a commercial exhaust hood. The meeting room is connected to the living space by two doors — one through the kitchen and another that connects to the exercise room. There is an internal and external staircase to the second floor.

The external staircase is from the meeting room. Although the roof is a standing seam metal roof, there is a history of the plywood substrate failing and causing leaks. Documentation shows a new standing seam roof in 2007. Any permitted work would trigger California Title 24. This is the energy efficiency act. Insulation levels of the building envelope would have to be addressed, particularly in the attic space of the meeting room. The HVAC system requires an overall, if not total replacement. It is a mash up of several systems. Energy efficiency pays for itself in time.

Everybody pick up on the issue in the above paragraph? There is no elevator. Therefore, there is no ADA accessibility to the second floor. I never believed this was an issue in a firehouse until three years ago. My assumption was everything upstairs was private space with no intent of public access. A discussion with a FEMA official changed my mind and resulted in the FEMA reference in the first paragraph. A FEMA specialist may not be ambulatory. It is no surprise than, that the men’s and women’s restrooms attached to the meeting room are not ADA compliant either.

As is typical for a firehouse of this age, the firefighter’s turnout gear is stored on the wall of the apparatus bay. This is not considered a Best Practices today due to the possible exposure to cancer-causing diesel exhaust. My recommendation would be to create a space in the smaller bay for a dedicated, closed in turnout room. Similar to the Oaks Village Station, this space would require ventilation both mechanical and natural.

There are bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, dining space, dayroom and exercise room above the two smaller apparatus bays. There’s an issue called Adjacency’s in firehouse design. Typically, we like to isolate the exercise room from the living space, particularly the bedrooms. Nobody wants to be awakened by a firefighter who came in early before their shift and starts throwing iron. The exercise equipment room is next to the combined dining/dayroom. I thought that was a problem. I was quite surprised when the crew at this station requested the wall between the workout room and the combination room be knocked down! When it was explained to me that another station in the district has a combined day room and exercise room I understood why it makes sense to them. I’m still mulling this one over. Personnel and cultures change over time. The firefighters 10 years from now may not want to hear clanging iron when they’re watching the Food Network. In addition to the station, fire administration and the apparatus repair shop are located here also. Both of these are separate buildings. The shop itself is set up for firetruck service and repair. The district does not employ the mechanic. The mechanic is contract personnel working part-time, as needed.

Fire administration is in a modular building next to the firehouse. It is adequate for the administrative function but has no real space for training. Considerations could be to move the modular building to another site where training facilities could be constructed also. Alternatively, the combined fire administration and training center could be located on the vacant land at the Nice station. If this were the case, the modular building could be used as the living space for the fire crews. This would be a significant upgrade. Relocating fire administration would certainly lessen the impact on available parking here.

Due to the modular building on the left side of the firehouse and the employee parking between the building and the alleyway on the right side of the firehouse, there is little opportunity to expand the building. This doesn’t even take into considerations the structural engineering needed to add on to a metal frame structure.

Final determinations for this firehouse are dependent on the architect and engineer estimates.

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,, call 408-603-4417 or email

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