If you have been in the fire and rescue industry very long, you have witnessed many trends. Most trends turn out to be just fads that will quickly fade away. But some trends prove beneficial over the long haul and therefore take hold.
Over Stewart-Cooper-Newell’s five decades of practicing architecture, a number of trends have not only stayed, but also made a lasting impact on station designs. Much of the change in station design has been a natural evolution resulting from better fire industry equipment and practices. Everyone has recognized that the modern fire station is a very specialized facility — not just a garage in which to keep big trucks.
Let’s take a brief look at a few of the more prominent trends in the fire and rescue industry that have made distinct differences in the way stations are designed and built.
Controlling Dangerous Contaminants
No subject has received more headlines in fire/rescue news over the past decade than the realization that cancer rates are much higher in this industry than in the general population. According to both the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine and the American Cancer Society Cancer Statistics Center, across eight of the most commonly diagnosed cancer types – on average – firefighters are 43 percent more likely than the general population to develop cancer. This appears to be caused by the regular exposure to known carcinogens at the fire grounds, and is exaggerated by repeated exposure cycle, which includes; fire ground exposure, return to station, contaminate the station and possibly home, repeat.
Some of the more typical ways that contaminants get carried back to the station are: on the firefighters themselves, on the PPE, and on the exterior and interior of the apparatus. Once the contaminants are back at the station, it is obvious how the firefighter can be constantly exposed. Unfortunately, station visitors can also suffer unnecessary carcinogen exposure through the many activities that have been historically held in the contaminated apparatus bays, such as: open house and tours, election polling, fund-raising events and meals, along with programs for children.
This extremely serious subject is impacting how architects look at a station layout. Generally, three zones are identified for proper separation; the Hot Zone (dirty) that includes the apparatus and support spaces, the Cold Zone (clean) that includes living and administrative spaces, and the Transition Zone between. All properly designed or reconfigured stations will have the three zones occurring in the proper linear order: Hot to Transition to Cold, or Bays to Transition to Living Spaces.
The proper treatment of the Transition Zone is mostly what is impacting station design. This normally results in dedicated Decontamination Areas, dedicated PPE Rooms, and separate “dirty” Toilet/Shower Rooms, along with other transitional spaces that capture the known contaminants and keep them away from occupants as much as possible.
While the male/female ratio among firefighters and EMS departments does not yet match the ratio in the general population, the number of females in most departments has increased by several hundred percent over the past few decades. The gender accommodation issue has most substantially affected the bunkroom areas and the toilet/shower room areas.
Sleeping accommodations in older stations were usually in the form of one large room with four to 30 beds lining the walls — much like military barracks. We still encounter departments who prefer this method for all personnel in a new facility. Most departments that use this approach will provide some means of visual separation between sleepers, such as low, partition or cubicle walls.
Other departments provide complete gender separation by planning for two separate bunk rooms, one for male and one for female. While this does accomplish its task, efficiency failure is built into this approach. While programming the design, your department must project the ratio of male to female personnel so that the two rooms can be sized appropriately. Do you plan for a ratio of 90/10, 80/20 or maybe 50/50? One thing is guaranteed — whatever ratio you select you will be wrong. The male/female ratio will likely change each year and possibly, each shift. The result of this approach is usually an over-crowded male bunk room and a near empty female bunk room.
Another approach is providing several, multi-person (two to six beds) bunkrooms. The theory is that at least one of the rooms will be for females. Then as the female population grows, more of the smaller bunk rooms will be utilized by females. This approach can still produce an inefficient occupancy ratio similar to the two-room approach.
The solution we are seeing most departments implement is an approach that not only satisfies the male/female issues, but also provides privacy for all personnel. That approach is to provide bunking with individual sleep rooms. No matter what the male/female ratio is or will become, this approach will always satisfy the need and provide privacy to all. Not to mention better sleep when you don’t have a snoring bed-neighbor who sounds like a freight train!
Training Opportunities at the Station
Public Safety Training Centers are often very large and very expensive. After designing several of them, dating back to the 1980s, our firm quickly learned that many of the training evolutions and opportunities provided in training centers could be inexpensively incorporated into the station design. Three decades later, it has become common for stations across the country to now make it a priority to include training props into their station design. From training towers, to pump-test pits, to ladder training, to confined space rescue, to high rope rescue, the opportunities are only limited to the imagination. The classroom-style training room has also become common and often serves a duel function as a community room.
VFD Transition to Career
The trend of more and more volunteer departments transitioning into combination or full career departments has impacted the types of spaces necessary in the station. The addition or increase in “living spaces” such as sleeping quarters, toilet/shower rooms and daily-use kitchens is necessitated by department transitions.
A number of volunteer departments provide limited bunking ability in hopes that some will “volunteer” to stay overnight, thus vastly improving call response time, or to be utilized in an emergency or weather event. Understanding the extended life span of a station and the possibility of transitioning into a career department during that life span, we always recommend planning for future bunking ability. Combination career/volunteer departments sometimes have two totally different approaches to bunking in the same building, more private separation for the career members and a more open bunkroom setting for volunteers. The building code will require that the sleeping areas be fire protected with sprinklers. This may be accomplished with residential (13R) type sprinklers that only address the bunkroom(s), particularly in rural settings where public water service is unavailable.
Even something as simple as where the firefighter parks their personal vehicle, as well as how they enter the building, is modified by whether they are a volunteer or career member starting their shift.
Co-Location with Other Agencies
In these times of escalating construction costs and diminishing building budgets, the option of multiple facility users has become the key to making many public safety construction dreams a reality.
Whether you represent fire, rescue, EMS or all of the above, few departments are overly enthusiastic about having another department join them as a “roommate.” However, in reality, many departments have found that by deciding to find ways to share a facility and enlisting other users to join them in their project, they have been able to greatly reduce their capital expenditures and stretch their departmental budgets. Further, the joint-use of a public safety facility can actually be designed so that it isn’t nearly as unappealing as it may sound. In recent years, designers and contractors nationwide have actually witnessed an increase in the demand for joint-use facilities, and there are many examples of how this concept has been successfully implemented. Fire departments have provided additional facilities for EMS departments, and vice-versa. Fire/rescue departments have provided additional facilities for law enforcement, parks and recreation and even city public works departments.
Having multiple users (or departments) housed under one roof does not necessarily mean that they have to share driveways, parking areas or even entrances. Rather, large-scale concerns such as these, and even smaller items like heating and air conditioning systems, can be separated for each facility user group. And from a security standpoint, quite often shared facilities are designed so that there are no interior means of access from one department to the other
Providing facilities for another department with a built-in, expiring time limit may provide you with the growth space you will need in the future, at today’s construction market prices. For example, if the city’s public works department needs space to park vehicles until they build their new facility in four or five years, it may coordinate very well with your plans to temporarily accommodate their equipment in an additional bay — a bay that your department could then grow into in that same four or five years. When that day arrives, your only cost will be the additional piece of apparatus, rather than more design and construction costs!
You may still decide that sharing a facility is simply not something that your department can live with. However, a willingness to consider bringing on a public safety roommate, whether short-term or long-term, and finding ways to share costs, resources and built space with this partner, will only benefit your construction budget and widen your project options. The design simply has to properly reflect what can be shared between occupants and what must remain separate.
Aesthetically Responding to the Community
Another evolving design characteristic of new stations over the past few years is the aesthetic response to the community. While this is not a new concept, it is apparent that most stations designed in the 20th century showed no concern for responding to established vernaculars and history in the community but were only interested in making their own design statement. Designers are paying much more attention to the surrounding ‘built’ environment as they develop the appearance of the new facility. From the overall building size and shape to the material selections, newer stations tend to visually fit better into their neighborhoods.
While most aesthetic preferences are truly “in the eye of the beholder”, more designers and departments are today more responsive to the history and character of the neighborhood served by the new station. Some look to blend a recognizable historic architecture with current materials, while others are responding the urban or rural nature of the existing context.
More frequently, the result of these increased efforts are stations that the community being served can take great pride and ownership in.
There are many other trends that have impacted the modern station design, and each passing year will bring additional trends to consider. We can only imagine what the twenty-second century station will be like, but let’s plan stations today so that many of them will still be in productive service when that time comes!