Temporary Firehouse

This issue we cover the process of building a temporary firehouse. The most common reason to build a temporary firehouse would be replacing an old firehouse with a new one on the same site. I have also had to set up modular buildings at three different image

firehouses because we were remodeling parts of the building and needed temporary spaces for the crews. Most remodeling is planned, other times it is not. If you discover mold in your firehouse, it may force a quick response requiring you to move out.

The building may need to be tented for termites, which will displace the crew for three days. A temporary building only works in this situation if you already own a modular building. Other wise the cost would be prohibitive. I have seen large RVs used for this situation; rent it and return it.

Two things prevent us from just shutting down a firehouse for any length of time — politics and our own Standards of Coverage. Local politicians would rather not have to explain to their constituents why they have no fire response in a specific neighborhood.

Building a temporary firehouse is very similar to building a permanent firehouse; the early considerations are the same. Probably top of the list is budget, how much money do you have to build this facility? Your budget may not only determine the size of what you build but also how you pay for it. Depending on the length of time needed you may buy or lease any modular buildings needed. After that, the considerations are typical; is there enough room for the fire truck to respond and return? Is there parking for the crew? Are the neighbors amenable to a fire truck and its noise even if it is only temporary? The next considerations are the utilities: electricity, natural gas or propane, water and sanitary sewer on the site. Not having utilities on site or at least at the curb may make the site cost prohibitive. Ideally the temporary site is close enough to the existing firehouse so that your response times are not negatively impacted.

Building a new firehouse on the same site as the old one required me to build two different facilities. We needed space for a four-person engine company that had a Class A pumper and a Brush Patrol. I found a site, an old house, the first day that had enough room for an app bay, modular housing and crew parking. I also had to create facilities for the battalion chief quarters and a Suburban. This was easier. The next station over had plenty of un-used land adjacent to the firehouse.

The land for the engine company was rented from a church that owned it. It had a cottage on it that was built in the 1890s. The city real estate staff handled this. We also had to get approval from the county since this parcel of land was in an un-incorporated section within the city. One of the county’s conditions was that any hard scape I put down would have to leave with us. The church we leased from was right across the street and the county did not want them using their property as parking after we left.

We had known for months that we needed the temporary space. I already identified the vendors for the modular living space and a temporary apparatus bay. The living space was a double wide modular building. This was not a mobile home. These units are typically used as temporary offices or classrooms. Ironically, it had been used by another fire department for the same purpose. It had four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and great room that was the dining area, day room and office area — cozy. The company lived here for almost two years. This was a rental. We had no perceived future use for a modular living space.

The apparatus bay was created using a Quonset hut style fabric building that we had purchased. Using a fabric covered building as a firehouse presents its own challenges. There are multiple considerations if you use a building that has a lack of solid walls. First off, if you live in snow, hurricane or tornado county this is probably not the structure for you. These were not issues for us. Next, anyone with a knife could slice it open. Additionally, there were no solid surfaces on the inside to mount equipment. The solution was to skin the inside ribs with plywood eight feet high. This prevented anyone from cutting through and gave us a mounting surface.

I used city general services staff to trench and bury the electrical conduit, water and sewer lines for both the living space and the tent. I had two sources of power. I had a temporary power drop installed — similar to a construction site — for the living unit and the apparatus bay. It was a construction site when we started but the electrical company guy made a comment about it when it turned into a finished inhabited space. The old house had its own drop but was given a new panel. The building was used as the exercise room for the firefighters and also housed our station-alerting package.

Originally, we had no intention of occupying the cottage. We just needed the utility hook ups. The build out was well on its way when the crew asked if their exercise equipment could be put in it. Cue the spooky music. This old house was scary. Before agreeing to their request, I brought in a testing company. Survey says, mold, asbestos and lead paint. After the abatement crew finished and tested the air, I went in and demolished the kitchen sink and cabinets. The living room was going to be the workout area. We needed a level floor for the rubber mats so I pulled up the carpet. That was nasty, dusty work. I also chiseled out the tile fireplace hearth. Sorry, truckers always like breaking things.

After the two 12 by 60 modular units were delivered and stitched together I had a concrete pad poured and a propane tank installed. There was no natural gas to the site.

The asphalt was laid for the driveway and apparatus bay floor. After the asphalt, the foundation piers were cored and poured. I had a 20-foot freight container dropped as additional storage for the station before the tent went up.

The apparatus bay was 42 by 48. It was functional but, as you can see, not very pretty. It was wide enough to have an entry door, an engine door and a brush patrol door across the front. There was an additional passage door at the back near the living quarters door. There is a lesson to be learned regarding the roll up doors. These structures were designed primarily for farming storage. The doors and motors were not designed to handle the number of cycles the busiest engine company in the city would put it through. I had to replace the drive motors and have the doors re-aligned several times. Budget an upgrade for the drive motors.

None of the city staff had any experience erecting the structure. We included the cost of the company’s crew to put up both tents. The ribs of the tent were engineered well enough that we knew we could hang our diesel exhaust equipment from them. There was plumbing roughed in so we could install a decontamination sink. There was enough room for turnout lockers at the back plus additional storage on the sides.

Rain was the only weather related issue that affected us. No gully washing flooding, just normal rain. The site sloped down from the living space to the apparatus bay to the street. It was not steep but enough to encourage water to do what water does; flow down hill. This meant it flowed under the tent edges and across the apparatus bay floor. This wasn’t a slipping hazard since the floor was asphalt. It was just an annoyance. I had a small berm of asphalt laid along the high side. A bigger annoyance was traveling between the modular and the app bay. You got wet — again, not a deal killer. The worst issue with the rain was noise. Being in the tent when a good storm came in sounded like being inside a bass drum.

We had already moved the ladder company out to a new station before the temp facility was done. This allowed us to start salvaging equipment inside. The diesel exhaust from the truck bay was saved for the temp building. Lockers were salvaged. The day of the move we took two sofas, the dining room furniture, appliances, lockers, office desk, file cabinets, janitorial equipment and exercise equipment.

This was the fourth crew we moved from their old firehouse to their new one. This wasn’t too difficult. The crew reports to their old building in the morning and by the end of the day they are in the replacement building. The challenge our department had was cutting over the station-alerting package. Our particular equipment would not allow two locations to use the same electronic address at the same time. The new system was always tested by using a false location. It takes coordination between the city electricians, radio technicians and the dispatch personnel to pull this off. It was “fingers crossed” when the technicians switch over. Could we dispatch to the new location, yes or no?

We only had one hiccup on move-in day. It was my mistake and I doubled down on it. I forgot to put the IT folks on the schedule. While everything else was working, we had no Internet. This meant the department computers could not connect to the Internet. While they weren’t part of the alert system, the paramedics require them.  Our county requires a patient contact form to be sent within 12 hours of the call. I burned up my cell phone pushing the IT staff to get on site. This was when the doubling down became apparent. I had learned earlier that move/cut over days should be Tuesdays. Monday is used for final tweaks to the moving plan. Critical support people may be off on Mondays. Tuesday gives you the most time in the working week to solve any problems. Conversely, Fridays are the worst day. The people you will depend on to solve just about any problems will be gone by 5:00. Guess what day this was? It was a Friday. Luckily, the IT folks and I were assigned to the same administrative division and we had a good relationship. Never underestimate the importance of being nice to the civilian staff!

This entire process was repeated when we moved the BC to a smaller version of the same temporary buildings the following week. A single wide modular had a kitchen, bathroom and office and dorm room with lockers. We installed s smaller version of the Quonset hut as the apparatus barn for the chief’s Suburban. Since the temporary site was next to an existing firehouse I was able to connect the sanitary sewer to it. Water came from a metered hydrant on the property. The electrical feed came right from the pole. We extended all the low voltage systems from the firehouse; alarm package, telephone and cable. Low-voltage and line voltage connections were made from the modular building to the apparatus bay.

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, www.firehousedesignandconstruction.com, call 408-603-4417 or email jim@mcclure904.net.

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