Making Informed Decisions

(Note: This draft is part two of a survey of the Northland FPD commissioned by the chief but is also intended for the voting public the District serves. The agency will be asking for a District wide property tax instead of individual community’s tax.)


Noghes Station

Noghes Station is the second largest firehouse in the district. The building is 110 feet long and 75 feet wide, totaling 8,250 square feet. The District owns an adjacent parcel. That parcel is 12,000 square feet of flat usable space.

The lot could be the start of a training center. The firehouse itself could be the classroom. This allows more space for training props and building mockups. I am researching the county’s air quality laws. Are you permitted to have live fire training? Does it have to be natural gas or propane? Is there a single agency that regulations water runoff? Potentially you may have to grade the site to capture and filter all water. Many departments use surplus freight containers to build credible training props.

A recent visit to the Santa Monica Fire Department showed five 20-feet long Conex boxes stacked two over three. It is used for search and rescue, confined space, and live fire training. It was put in service in 2015.

My biggest concern here is seismic resilience. Five apparatus bay doors make up the 75-foot front of the building. Considering the size and volume of the peaked roof, I see this structure as a Soft Story.

A soft story building is a multi-story building in which one or more floors have windows, wide doors, large unobstructed commercial spaces, or other openings in places where a shear wall would normally be required for stability as a matter of earthquake engineering design. FEMA.

The apparatus bay is 49 feet deep. There are no interior walls to create shear value for the front to back plane. Luckily the front of the building does not have the weight and mass of a complete second story over the apparatus bay. The rear of the station is a true second story. It runs at a 90-degree angle to the apparatus bay. I do not know if the wall separating the apparatus bay from the living space is an engineered shear wall. A structural engineer will have to do that. The building is wood-frame, heavy timber construction; essentially, barn framing.

I have two problems with the construction. The timber itself is not the problem. I am concerned about the connections of the posts to the floor and the posts to the ceiling beams. With no solid walls across the front of the station there is the potential for the building to start swaying left to right in an earthquake. The swaying could cause one or more posts to split or break their connections to the beams or the floor. Additionally, the posts on the interior of the apparatus bay are attached to the ceiling beams that run from front to back on the apparatus bay ceiling. Running in this direction, these post to beam connections could very well act as a hinge the length of the apparatus bay. At the very least this will rack the apparatus bay doors; at the worst this will cause a partial collapse. There is the potential for fire apparatus to be trapped inside before the shaking stops.

The right front corner has a buttress wall extending several feet from the front wall past the corner of the building. At first, I thought it was there to give some lateral stability to the apparatus bay front wall with the five overhead doors. There is not a matching buttress on the left side. Logic would dictate that there would be. I then saw the passage door just behind the wing wall. I suspect that wing wall was added to reinforce the corner because the passage door eliminated structural elements at the corner.

There is an easement for storm drains running the length of the property between the building and the property line. A USA ground survey is needed to clarify the width of the utility. No construction should take place otherwise. There might not be enough room for the additional strengthening that is required. This reinforces my recommendation for a structural engineer on site sooner rather than later to give a definitive answer regarding the viability of the structure. The living space stretches across the back third of the two-story section of the building. The framing here has the same heavy beam construction as the apparatus bay. The interior walls may have some resistive strength for the living quarters of the building. But, I do not believe there is much shear value. Again, a structural engineer is required.

The large central space (700 square feet) is surrounded on three sides. The space is used as the dining area and for training. The rest of the downstairs living space includes a kitchen, multiple storage and work rooms, an office with multiple work stations and two restrooms. Currently, the restrooms do not meet ADA code. Rudimentary measuring determined the footprint of the two restrooms is large enough to comply. The doors have to be widened though.

There is only one refrigerator due to the small crew size. Like Laverna, the stove is a commercial unit. The training space can conceivably feed many people; a reflection of its history as a volunteer firehouse.

The self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) are stored and repaired in one room and the turn out gear are stored and repaired in another. Both rooms are accessed thru the interior living space.

The office is on the right side of the building and has a door to the exterior. This door leads to the adjacent flat parcel mentioned earlier. The staff park their cars there.

There is a door to the back yard from the kitchen leading to small concrete patio. A washer and dryer are on the patio behind the kitchen. There was a discussion about adding an extractor to be able to properly clean the firefighters’ turnout gear. This is a pressing concern due to the link between toxic exposures and cancer. Due to the weight and the torque of the motor, the extractor is required to be bolted to extra thick concrete. A new concrete pad would have to be poured. A higher capacity power supply would have to be brought to this location from the electrical panel to the extractor. The panel is on the same side of the building reducing the distance and cost of the new circuit.

The interior staircase to the second floor runs parallel along the back wall of the building. Looking from the interior of the building, it climbs from left to right, landing about in the middle of the second floor. I mention this because I do not know if it contributes or lessens the shear strength to the back wall. The exterior stairs exit the second floor at the right-hand corner and land at ground level near the middle of the exterior wall.

There is a strange irony with the placement of both set of stairs. They more or less exit people in the same area of the building; in the middle of the back wall. If the threat that is causing them to exit the second floor is along the back wall, both stairs bring them to the worst possible location. The exterior stairs should be relocated.

It is possible the structural engineer may call for seismic hardening on the first floor living space. Hopefully it would not impact the Great Room Training space. While all this engineering is happening, room for an elevator must be found also.

Upstairs is the firefighters’ personal space. This is where the dayroom, the exercise equipment, two full bathrooms and the sleeping areas occupy the same space that was referenced at the Laverna Station. I use the term sleeping areas because they are all not bedrooms with walls and doors. There are three bedrooms with one bed each. Two additional beds are in alcoves created with surplus office partitions. This creates some privacy for the beds but you have no control over sound or light intrusion. The exit to the exterior stairs is adjacent to the sleeping alcoves.

The second floor will need significant remodeling, starting with the ceiling.

The sheet rock ceiling is sagging. The sheet rock was not hung properly. It appears it was hung on the wrong bias of the ceiling framing.

Assuming a structural engineer has already been engaged, this would be a good time for a survey of the attic/roof framing for opportunities to harden the building. Fair warning — the structural engineer might start calculating the weight of the exercise equipment and wonder if the second-floor is the right place for it.

Once the seismic work is done, skylights or sun tubes could be installed to daylight the great room. Title 24 mandates a minimum of glazing based on square footage calculations. Insulate before hanging a new ceiling. For the ceiling material I would recommend acoustic 2×4 tiles in a T-bar ceiling again. It is much easier to access, investigate and repair any issues between the roof and ceiling when all you need to do is lift a 2×4 acoustic tile. In my career I have seen many attic or roof problems linger because no one wanted to open the sheet rock or old lath and plaster ceilings.

As part of the work on the second floor, more bedrooms should be installed. This work would not only involve carpenters and sheetrock crews but also electricians and HVAC installers. I was not made aware of any HVAC issues at this building but with the ceiling open this would be the time to address any. New power and light and alarm circuits would need to be run for the sleeping spaces. With all the sleeping areas having floor to ceiling walls, the HVAC would have to be extended to each room. Windows would need to be installed for each bedroom. I do not recommend sun tubes in the bedrooms. It is more difficult to darken the room with them. The new bedrooms will need new windows cut into the exterior walls.

There is a window looking down from the day room into the app bay. I recommended changing it to a thicker plastic window. This mitigates the potential of an earthquake dropping glass shards down from the second floor. The glass would fall exactly in the path of travel between the apparatus bay and the living space.

ADA Compliance

Regarding ADA compliance, this firehouse has the same issues as the Laverna firehouse. While there is no expectation of the public accessing the second floor the same scenario concerning FEMA or Cal Fire could come into play. A FEMA specialist could show up and be mobility impaired or in a wheelchair. Hence the need for the elevator. The good news is there is plenty of floor space on both floors to insert an elevator. This also means that an upstairs bathroom would have to be ADA compliant. If the exercise equipment stays on the second floor the elevator would make it easier for the crew to move equipment in and out.


Because the firehouse sits at the base of a rather significant hill, there is a drainage problem. Water perks up high enough to affect the interior of the firehouse, specifically, the office. Because of this I recommend verifying the depth of the building pad. The linoleum floor tiles are lifting off of the concrete floor. They were put down after the original mildewed carpet was pulled up. There is a French drain nearby in the right rear corner of the property. There is also a visible storm drain at the front of the property at the edge of the road. The first step is to make sure the French drain is not clogged. There may be just an accumulation of debris decreasing the capacity. Alternatively, if there is a drain pipe leading to the storm drain, I recommend a plumbing snake with a camera be sent from the French drain forward to the street to check for blockage. I am assuming when the French drain was built there was enough fall for the water to drain to the street. That was not obvious looking at it with the naked eye. A laser level should be used to determine the height of the pipe at the French drain and the storm drain. It is possible there is settling somewhere along the pipe. You may have to assist gravity with a sump pump to move the water off the property. A third scenario would be there is no pipe connecting the French drain to the storm drain. In that case, the French drain itself will need significant work; perhaps rebuilding and/or enlarging.

I was advised by the crew that the generator on-site can run the entire building. It might not be able to if the additional loads mentioned above are added.

Upton Fire Station

The station is a mix of the oldest and the newest. The fire station itself is the original building from 1947. It no longer houses an active duty firetruck. There is a museum quality rig stored in the original apparatus bay.

The building is used as the living space for one on-duty firefighter. The office, day room, kitchen and bedroom are all in use here.

The building is a single story with poured concrete walls. Assuming the concrete walls are tied to the concrete floor correctly, the building should ride out the shaking with minimal damage. I don’t anticipate the walls falling. The wooden roof framing will flex, creak and groan but usually will still be intact when the dust settles. This roof has three exceptions; the large room in the center, the two HVAC units on the roof and the weight and mass of the storage in the attic. The day room span is from wall to wall and some roof components may fall into the living space. The HVAC is mounted over the office. The additional weight of the HVAC and/or the storage could complicate the roof’s dynamics. The files should be removed. The structure engineer will have to verify my observations. The building had three doors; the front door and the side door from the day room and the kitchen door at the rear. The side door has been closed off.

We need to take a tip from our own training: Know Two Ways Out.

This also means the interior space must be laid out to not cause harm to the occupants. Bookcases must be bolted to the wall. They should not be on walls that flank the normal path of travel. The bookcase stays up but the books can come flying out causing a trip hazard at the least. File cabinets should be secured also. They typically are in the path of travel. Even if the files are not sensitive, file drawers should be locked to prevent the top drawer from opening and pulling the file cabinet over. Any mirrors or frames with glass should not be in the path of travel. Regardless of the location, they should be secured to prevent broken glass. Be aware of what you might encounter exiting a post-earthquake building. That awareness can make all the difference between escape and escape with injury.

While this paragraph was written for the Upton firehouse, directions, building behaviors and personnel actions listed here apply to the entire district.

The apparatus bay is a relatively new Butler-style building. It is over 70 feet wide and approximately 45 feet deep. It has three double bays that are back-in only. The front driveway is deep enough to safely make U-turns to back in. There is plenty of storage space. Some storage is reserved for special support teams such as Incident Command and the Dive Team.

There is a sewer easement behind the apparatus bay which prevents the building of any new components to the rear of the firehouse. I cannot determine the function of a large vertical pipe on the far side of the living quarters.

The district has to plan for the day the use of the original 1947 firehouse will have to be discontinued and new living quarters built. One possibility would be to find offsite parking very near for the staff. If that is achieved, the lot would need to be secured with fencing. New living space could be built in the current parking lot with an option to attach it to the apparatus bay or leave it separate, similar to Cal Fire buildings.

This would require doing a study of any nearby real estate and undeveloped land. If any adjacent parcels came up for sale, they should be considered.

Another option would be to get a structural engineer’s opinion about adding a second floor over the Butler building garage. That would give you over 3000 square feet of living space. Structural building materials can be made to span the 45 feet from front to back. There is more than enough square footage to create everything you need in the living side of the firehouse on the second floor. As to whether it’s financially worth it is another question. But a question I would like to find the answer to. It may be less expensive to tear down the entire structure and start over.

I believe these types of exercises are important to establish the cost and value of the structural inventory.

I believe in Informed Decisions.

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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