The Fire Station, The Station Articles, Tutterow

The Fire You Really Don’t Want

Issue 5 and Volume 21.

By Robert Tutterow

It is the fire station fire. Earlier in the year, I received an inquiry on this subject from an architect who specializes in fire station design. His inquiry was as follows: “It turns out that, on average, 50 fire stations burn each year. Recently a two-year-old station burned. I imagine that the fires begin in a fire truck. Do you think it is possible to put enough water in the bay to stop a fire that starts in a truck?”

I wasn’t exactly clear what he meant about “enough water in the bay,” but fire departments should always be in “prevention” mode when it comes to fire station fires. To underscore this issue, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) reports: “In 2009-2013, an average of 86 structure fires per year were reported at fire stations, resulting in an average property loss of $2.4 million per year.”

It is certainly not unusual to hear about a station fire, and there are probably a lot of station fires that never make the news and are not reported. But, based on the known numbers, this is 1.65 fire station fires a week-way too many!

During my career, my fire department (with 42 fire stations) had one working fire in a fire station. The cause was unattended food on the stove. The crew was “in quarters” but outside grilling and forgot about the pot on the kitchen stove, which happened to be on the second story of the two-story station. The company was able to extinguish the fire without calling for assistance, but the kitchen cabinetry was charred and there was minor smoke damage on the second floor. The incident never made the news. As the safety officer, I was notified; when I arrived, the crew had cleaned all the smoke damage and, except for the charring, the kitchen would have received the highest of food sanitation ratings. It was clearly obvious, the crew wanted the damage to look (and be) as minimal as possible!

I’ve often heard that an automotive mechanic may have the worst maintained vehicle. Far too often, we in the fire service have some of the most egregious fire safety violations in our stations. The fire station fire is not only embarrassing, but it puts the community’s fire protection at risk.

The fire incident described in my department was not exactly as described in the inquiry from the architect. I think he is probably correct in that most fires start in apparatus and spread to the station. The catastrophic losses are likely in stations that are unattended, primarily volunteer and combination fire departments.

Prevention Measures

So, what are the prevention measures? The short answer is a sprinkler system. Yet, the reality is that unless the station was built in the past 25 years, it probably does not have a sprinkler system, and many built today still do not have sprinkler systems. A fire that starts in the cab of an apparatus will not initially benefit from a sprinkler system because of the cab roof, so consider an onboard extinguishment system and/or alerting system.

As with all fires, early detection is crucial. All fire stations should have a detection system that immediately notifies the fire dispatch system of a fire or potential fire in a fire station. The longer a station is left unattended, the more important this system is to prevent a catastrophic loss.

NFPA 1500, Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program, has an entire chapter on “Facility Safety” (Chapter 9). Among the requirements are compliance with the life safety code and sprinkler systems for all new fire stations. There are requirements for smoke and carbon monoxide detectors as well as all federal, state, and local fire code requirements. I am an advocate of fire departments having code enforcement officers tour their stations on a regular basis. A set of outside eyes is a way to add strength and credibility to an inspection. For example, a fire department could cooperate with a similar-size department in the region to inspect each other’s facilities.

NFPA 1500 also states that fire departments should have documented annual and monthly facility safety inspections. As the manager of such a program for 24 years, I found the monthly health and safety inspections to be most beneficial. Issues were identified early and repairs addressed in a fairly timely fashion. The inspections also kept the fire stations from looking like “frat houses.” There is a sample inspection form in the annex at the end of NFPA 1500.

Finally, for overall fire station health and safety considerations, consider attending the annual F.I.E.R.O. Fire Station Design Symposium, to be held September 26-28 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Kevin Roche, Phoenix Fire Department (ret.) and partner with Facets Consulting, has a riveting presentation on the subject. It is always one of the best-attended presentations at the symposium. Details about the event are at www.fierofirestation.com.

If we in the fire service are going to “talk the talk,” we must “walk the walk.”

ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. His 34-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).