Guns and Hoses

If you have ever been involved in the planning and construction of any building, you are more than aware that it can be both a challenging, yet hopefully rewarding experience. 


Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina public safety facility.

Envision designing your personal house, the place where you live, eat, sleep and spend time relaxing with your family — while at the same time trying to inject into this mix your spouse’s business and 50 or more of his or her closest business associates and colleagues. This may aptly describe the challenge of bringing together two very different public safety components under one roof. Although both fire and police departments share many of the same goals of serving and protecting the public they are still very different organizations.

The reasons and advantages for bringing the departments together under one roof can be many, but the primary reasons fall into one of two categories: Financial and Space. The combined available capital improvement budgets can benefit both agencies while the economy of scale of building a single larger facility will many times result in a savings over building two smaller buildings. Further, the combining of the facilities could lead to a smaller shared facility due to the possible omission of spaces due to sharing of a number of duplicated spaces, for example, lobbies, training and conference rooms, physical training rooms, etc. The acquisition costs for property could then be less due to smaller land needs. Other cost savings could be possible staff, project management costs, equipment costs and utility costs savings.

Some of the intangible advantages are that a shared facility can provide more opportunities for cooperation and efficiencies for both departments along with more multi-agency training possibilities. Placing the staff of the departments in a situation where they see each other and engage in in each other’s daily work routine provides opportunity for the staff to begin to get to know each other to develop more teamwork and comradery.

Whether or not it is a cost savings realized by the tax payer or an improved response due to a tighter working relationship between the two departments, the public is the ultimate winner.

“Co-location has worked very well for the Asheville fire and police departments. There are capital and annual operational savings for both departments that are realized by sharing facilities. The greatest benefit; however, is that having our firefighters and police officers working out of the same facility, greatly improves operations on emergency scenes. Firefighters and police officers that already know one another well because they work out of the same facility translates to seamless operations during emergencies.

“We would, and are, certainly considering doing it again. You can’t replace the safety and efficiency that is provided when our emergency responders know one another on a first name basis.”

— Scott Burnette, Fire Chief – Asheville, NC

With all of the benefits that the co-location can bring, there are some challenges that have to be addressed and overcome. The most common that we see are:

  1. Tradition
  2. Egos
  3. Staff Attitudes
  4. Security Concerns
  5. Privacy Concerns
  6. Access Concerns
  7. Site Traffic

The first three, tradition, ego and staff attitudes are all similar and somewhat related. They also can be the hardest to overcome. If the departments have strong leadership that has a history of working together, these three challenges are generally not at issue. If the relationship between the departments and leadership is contentious and has been for some time, do not expect coming together under one roof to help the problem, it is a systemic problem that will need to be corrected prior to the project. The last four challenges are very valid concerns but can be addressed through the proper design and layout of the site and the individual spaces.

“Once we made the decision to move ahead with the plan to share facilities, convincing many on the police and fire staff was a challenge…My advice to other departments is – don’t get stuck in tradition.”

— Chief Mason, Harwich, MA

One item that needs to be clearly understood by both departments, the municipal administration and the design team, is that the two departments are very different. As mentioned in the introduction, combining a fire and police department might be no different than combining a home and a business, as the departments are very different. A fire station is commonly referred to as a “Fire House” and this is crucial to understanding the difference. A fire house is a place where firefighters live. It is their home away from home. They live, sleep, rest, study and even do their laundry at this facility. It is truly a home and therefore the fire department has a strong “family” culture.

Totally different, the police station does not have the same culture. The police department is a place where police business is conducted, roll calls and investigations are performed. A police department is more of a “business” culture. The differentiation is important to understand, one is not better or worse, simply different. A good example of this difference is the fire station kitchen/dining room and the police department lunch/break room. The firefighters cook breakfast, lunch and dinner in the kitchen and share the meal with the on-duty shift in the dining area. The police department uses the lunch/break room just as it says, only as lunch and break room. These are two spaces that we are commonly asked to share but it may not be appropriate considering the use, although similar, is very different!

There are traditionally three directions that a shared public safety facility can take in the general layout. The first is that the two departments are together in the same building; however, they do not share any spaces and have little connectivity, simply put they are sharing only the roof. The second and most common layout for a new shared public safety facility is where the two departments are adjacent but have a group of shared spaces between the two departments. The shared spaces would include spaces such as a common lobby, training and conference rooms and possibly physical fitness and tactical training rooms. Other spaces, as appropriate for the particular departments, may also be shared.

The last layout type would be where there is no separation and the departments are truly integrated into one design. The direction that the design goes will depend on the preferences, needs and relationships of the two departments and can be purely one of the above or a hybrid.

Addressing the four challenges of security, privacy, access and site traffic may differ significantly depending upon which of the three basic layouts is selected, but with good design can be addressed. With the use of proximity or other keycard type systems, an access control system can easily provide the needed separation for either security or privacy concerns. Police officers do not need to be wondering into or around the “private” sleep areas of the fire house nor do the firefighters need to be walking though the investigator’s spaces. These sorts of issues can be easily addressed with appropriate space relationships and access controls. Similarly, appropriate site layout to address emergency egress of the fire apparatus during a call and the return of these vehicles so that they do not cross police or public traffic along with secure staff parking versus public parking is simply good design.

Understanding the different operations and the very specific needs of the two very different departments, integrating these where appropriate and separating where necessary can solve many problems that could arise. Although there can be many challenges in combining the two departments, the benefits to both the departments and the community can far outweigh the additional effort required by all during the design and building process.

Since 1988, Ken Newell, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, IAFC, has earned a national reputation for the programming and design of Public Safety Facilities that are functional, practical and budget-conscious. He has been directly involved in the planning and design of over 275 Fire Stations, EMS Stations and Public Safety Training Facility projects designed by Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects. Since 2000, his practical approach to station design has led to him being a featured speaker at national Fire Station Design Symposiums and State Fire Conferences.

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