Posted: November 2, 2016 | Project Management
Fire stations are changing. No longer are they just gigantic garages for fire engines with dormitory sleeping quarters overhead. The old-fashioned fire station with the fire pole and the Dalmatian dog has become a fixture of the past that we revisit in old cartoons. Modern fire stations are serving more needs than just being elaborate garages for fire trucks, and this presents new challenges for architects who have to design to accommodate these needs.
Design by function
Before a fire station is sent to an architect to be built or improved, an elaborate system of needs is constructed by the chief/staff. Often the fire chief visits other stations in the area to get help in deciding what works and what doesn’t in a new station design.
Once a station has been built, the hardest thing to change is the apparatus bay where the fire engines are stored. To design for this, architects will often try to encourage more apparatus bays than currently necessary in order to prepare for future growth. “Although many fire stations today are designed by computer modeling,” according to Dennis Dong from Calpo Hom & Dong Architects, “the best architectural simulation for fire stations always seems to be the scale cardboard model. And somehow I never seem to get them back from clients.”
Health and Safety Needs
In the old fire stations of yesteryear, sleeping and rooming quarters were located overhead of the apparatus bays. When an alarm bell sounded, firemen jumped out of bed and slid down a pole, suited up, and sped out on waiting fire engines. Unfortunately, diesel fumes from the fire trucks and soot on uniforms caused many job-related injuries for fire fighters. According to Jennifer Bettiol, of Brown Reynolds Architects, cancer rates for firefighters are 20% - 50% higher than the overall population. The problem, according to Jennifer, is in the soot. “This represents a new challenge for architects— to design a fire station that allows for the isolation of soot and decontamination of equipment, all with the health of firefighters in mind.”
This new need was met by the designers of fire stations. Some facilities are designed with special decontamination areas, including specified wash-up areas, showers, touch-free lavatories, easily-scrubbed epoxy floor areas, and anti-bacterial furniture that can be easily cleaned and HEPA scrubbed.
To prevent diesel contamination, new exhaust systems now plug into the tailpipe of the trucks and are sent outside until the truck has left the building. Fire fighting gear is also stored in rooms ventilated separately from administrative and living quarters. Separate laundry areas are also provided for working clothes that may be smoke or soot saturated. Separate HVAC systems are provided for apparatus bays and living areas. All of these have to be taken in consideration by designers.
The days of the old-fashioned ambulance that takes you to a nearby hospital are slowly disappearing into the past. In some areas, emergency medical services are part of the fire station itself. According to Jennifer Bettiol, “Some new fire stations are actually providing a separate triage room for much faster public access of emergency services.”
Changes in health care and advancing trends in community medicine are now linking many fire departments with community health care needs. A designated triage facility, walk-in assessment area, or immunization zone is a new reality in many fire departments today—especially when a hospital can be miles and precious minutes away. While meeting these public needs may not be putting out fires, they certainly help warm public acceptance on funding new stations for their neighborhood.
Allowable turnout time for first responders, according to NFPA Code, is 80-90 seconds. This has been taken down to 60 seconds in the upcoming new Code. That means a sleeping fireman has to be fully suited in gear and in the truck in only 60 seconds. For architects and designers, this means that access to the trucks has to be designed with a route in a direct line from the living or sleeping quarters, or in as much of a direct line as possible.
Lighting is changing as sleeping quarters are being fitted with lighting that comes on gradually, to avoid shocking the awaking fireman with full light in an emergency. To make sure that these lights always come on, most fire stations are designed and equipped with backup emergency power supplies.
With more women entering the force, the trend has gone from the old-style sleeping dormitory of bunk beds in the same area to private, individual snore- and noise-proof sleeping rooms (with closing doors), and separate gender-neutral bathrooms.
Increasingly, fire departments are asking for in-house training rooms with weight rooms. Some are even asking for a hose-drying tower with a stairway, so that firemen can pull weights up the stairs in order to increase stamina in stair-climbing rescues. Some stations even offer rappelling training on the side of the building. Additionally, several stations are being designed with classroom-style training rooms that can not only be used for fire-fighting training, but also for meeting with the community, in an effort to build community support.
Future of Firefighting
Perhaps the fire station of the future will feature a giant screen with a virtual reality map showing access throughout the land, wind speed, and potential movement of the fire through the area to help better predict where to send resources and direct aerial bombardment. Perhaps future architects will have to design apparatus bays for giant fire-fighting robots that use sound waves to extinguish fires and are directed by overhead drones—all managed by a central multi-screened command center.
But, while the services of the fire station seem to be increasing in order to fit the needs of the public, the fire station remains an outpost of assistance in an ever-changing world of emergencies.