Building a Fire Station Must Be Done by Design
Editor’s Note: A consistent theme at fire station design events is selecting the right architect for the job, particularly one who has experience designing these types of structures, as they are different from typical buildings. In this look back at stations past, that message resonated even in 1969.
Chris Mc Loone, Editor
In my 24 years of designing firehouses, I have heard many complaints from chiefs and commissioners that they are not satisfied with their buildings or architects. Further discussion generally reveals that they selected architects who were not familiar with the complexities of a firehouse nor with the firemen’s innumerable duties. The architect treated the structure more as a garage than the public building it really is. As a result, many districts find themselves involved with legal problems and buildings that are impractical or poorly designed.
A fire station differs from any other structure in that it must be manned 24 hours a day and all the facilities and equipment in the building must be ready for immediate use. The plan of the structure must be practical and simple, and the finishes must be such that they require a minimum of maintenance. Since the building is financed by public funds, it must be attractive and should be of contemporary design or of a style which will improve the architecture in the area in which it is to be built. Otherwise, the residents of the community will seriously object to having a fire station in their neighborhood. If the building is attractive, it should actually improve the area and in some cases increase rather than decrease real estate values in the vicinity.
The station site must first be purchased before any construction plans can be started. The chief, commissioners or officials of the municipality should carefully discuss the location and the many problems to be considered in this site selection. The American Insurance Association should be consulted about recommendations regarding the size, type and location of the station. The owners must decide whether it is to he a district station or department headquarters.
The chief should study where the most fires occur in the district, since the building should, if possible, face in the direction of the most runs. If it is a volunteer department, he should determine the area from which the most men respond, since it is best to build the building where the men can reach it quickly.
The site should be on a street that is wide enough to allow the apparatus to swing into the street easily, and the street should not have too much traffic because of the accident hazard when pulling out of the firehouse. The site must be large enough to allow the building to be set back about 40 feet from the property line, and there should be enough area left for parking. The land must be free of permanent easements and other restrictions that can hamper the construction or departmental operations. If the architect has been selected, it is a good idea to ask his opinion before deciding on a site.
A lawyer should be consulted to avoid legal problems on the purchase. He should be sure that no deed restrictions, zoning regulations or easements hamper the design or construction of the fire station. The property should be surveyed, and it may be obtained by direct purchase, if everyone is agreeable, or through condemnation proceedings. The lawyer will advise the commissioners on the latter method.
Selecting the architect
After the site has been obtained, an architect must be selected. This is probably the most important decision the owners must make in the whole undertaking, since the architect will prove to be their most valuable friend and asset in the whole process. He can advise them about the best design, most economical type of construction and keep them out of legal entanglements and lawsuits.
The architect should not be selected because he is a local architect or has political connections, since he may not be familiar with the problems in this type of structure. He should not be selected on the basis of a low fee because this is a minor part of the total cost of the project, and if he charges a low fee, he must be eliminating design, study, dimensioning or detailing or may be hiring inferior engineers or draftsmen. As a result, many extras can occur during construction. Since the owners cannot get competitive bids on this extra work, it may cost them much more than they saved.
The architect should be selected not only on the basis of the aesthetics of the designs he has done but also on his experience in firehouse construction, his knowledge of the legal requirements of the state and municipality, and his knowledge of building codes, zoning regulations, fire underwriters’ codes and other laws and regulations. A firehouse, being a public building, is affected by many state and local laws which can complicate the preparation of the drawings.
If the architect has designed a number of fire stations or done more than one station in a district, it indicates people are well pleased with his work. The owners should examine some of the stations he has designed to see the type of design, finishes and detail he includes and to see if he is familiar with the operations of a fire department. Talking with owners of stations he has designed or with contractors with whom he has worked will inform the client of his ability, originality and cooperation. Once the commissioners have selected the architect, they should place their utmost confidence and faith in his decisions and cooperate with him as much as possible, since he will be their faithful employee for a long time.
Soon after the architect has been hired, his contract should be signed. (Most architects use the standard form of contract prepared by the American Institute of Architects.) Then a conference should be arranged with the chief, commissioners and architect and any others involved in the project.
During this meeting, the owners should give the architect as much information as possible about the site and the operation and requirements of the fire department. If the architect is familiar with fire department operations, he will lead the conversation, and the requirements will flow easily from questions he asks. I might point out that sketches prepared by chiefs or firemen are generally more of a hindrance than a help.
At this discussion, the architect should be told whether a substation or headquarters is to be built. It also is necessary to determine the number, length and weight of the apparatus to be housed and the method of drying hose, that is, whether a hose tower, electric hose dryers, or horizontal drying is preferred—or whether there are to be no drying facilities at all. The number of men to be housed in the dormitory also has to be established.
Alarm system considered
Whether the dispatching will be done from the new station and the complexity of the dispatching has to be considered along with alarm systems to be used. There can be a siren or air horn on the building and either telephone or radio home alerting systems proposed that will be controlled at the new firehouse. The number and size of meeting and training rooms and, if this is a volunteer department, the seating capacity of the meeting room all have to be determined.
The recreation areas must be discussed since they must be included in both paid and volunteer houses. Plenty of storage space must be provided adjacent to the apparatus room as well as off the meeting room and in other areas. Emergency generator facilities also must be included in the plans. The architect will automatically include janitor’s closets, men’s and women’s toilets, trophy cases, stairs, boiler room, vestibules and other utility areas.
Whether the building will be two stories or one and whether it is possible to have a basement will have to be decided. Many times, due to subsurface water conditions, a basement is impractical. I have found that the cost per square foot in my area is approximately the same whether the building is one or two stories. However, the size of the plot is generally a factor in this decision.
Preparation of sketches
From the data obtained at this meeting, the architect will prepare preliminary sketches showing his interpretations of the items discussed and how they should fit together. The rooms and areas will be knit together to give a practical and economical layout. He will give the sizes of the areas and their location in relation to other areas. In his preparation of this sketch, he should keep in mind the location of the property, the adjoining structures and the operation of the department as well as construction economy.
This preliminary sketch will probably be scrutinized and revised several times, but it will be a tremendous help in the owners’ understanding of the project. The owners may not agree with the architect’s recommendations, but further discussions and revisions will finally produce a plan that is practical and will best serve the department. The sketches should be thoroughly studied, and even if a little additional time is spent on them, it is to everyone’s advantage. The owners want a workable plan, and the architect must give them a good plan, since he will depend upon them for recommendations for future work.
During discussions of the sketches, the architect will advise the owners of his estimate of the cost of the project. However, it is impossible for any architect to accurately predict or guarantee this figure, since local conditions or changing pay schedules of the building trades frequently disrupt his figures.
Contemporary design preferred
During these conferences, the architect will probably establish the type of exterior design that should be used. I generally prefer a contemporary design because I find it generally harmonizes with any type of architecture in the vicinity and it gives me a better chance to be original. Good contemporary design does not cost any more than poor design. How one puts brick, block, steel or stone together does not matter. The same amount of material is used in both good and poor design. Therefore, there is no reason why your architect should not spend time to study and design a beautiful exterior. Also, he should not reuse plans or elevations from other firehouses he has designed. Each one should have its own character and be distinct.
The exterior design of the building should be left completely to the architect since he has been educated in this field.
After the money has been authorized for the construction, the architect should ask that test borings be made to determine subsurface conditions and the water table. This should not be eliminated, as clay or water is frequently encountered where it is least expected. The cost of the borings is small and they can prevent a lot of trouble, embarrassment and expense.
The architect will now prepare working drawings and specifications from which bids will be received from contractors and the building will be constructed. In many states, bids must be separate for general construction, steel and miscellaneous iron, plumbing, electric, and heating and ventilating. Your architect should Ire familiar with the laws of the area.
The architect should now meet with the commissioners and chief or building committee to decide what mechanical equipment and finishes will be incorporated in the building. He will probably bring his mechanical engineer with him at this time.
At this conference such items as the following will be discussed: the type of heating system required, oil, gas or electric; whether the heating will be hot water, steam, hot air or electric; the number of heating zones required; special areas needing unusual controls for heat; areas to be air-conditioned; rooms requiring special ventilation; the type of electric fixtures to be usedincandescent or fluorescent and recessed or surface-mounted—and the location of special appliances such as battery chargers, vehicle exhaust system, booster fill lines, air lines, hose reels and air horns or sirens. The complexities of the alarm system, including connections to schools and factories, must be discussed.
Night lights for the truck floor are desirable in volunteer stations, and these lights should be controlled by time switches for convenience. Similar lights also may be needed for passageways from the outside to the truck floor. Thought might also be given to a delayed switch for a light over the door to the parking lot so that the last man out of the firehouse can have light while walking to his car-especially when there is ice on the ground.
Some fire departments like to have a single switch at the watch desk—or near the entrance door in volunteer stations—that will turn on enough lights for men to put on their gear and get on the apparatus quickly and safely.
Features to consider
It would be impossible to discuss all the details that must be considered in the dasign in this article. Therefore, I will briefly describe a few of the main areas.
The apparatus room should be serviceable and easily maintained. The floor finish can be either concrete with a dustproof hardener or color applied, terrazzo, epoxy finish, ceramic tile or any of the newer proven materials. Guidelines should be designed into the floor to aid in backing the trucks. The walls can be a glazed block, ceramic tile, plaster or even a painted block, depending on the budget. The ceiling should be a perlite plaster if the building code requires fireproofing, or plain plaster or acoustical tile. I have occasionally left open joists at the ceiling and then painted the ceiling black to conceal the numerous pipes and conduits.
The overhead doors can be either wood, steel, or aluminum, but cheap doors should not be considered. The doors must be easily opened and must be tight since a great deal of heat can be lost through the door. I suggest that insulated doors be considered.
Door opening devices
Overhead doors for the apparatus can be opened mechanically or electrically. If the doors, under spring tension, are to be opened mechanically, the end of the release rope should be located within reach of the apparatus driver.
Electrically operated doors can have operating controls at the watch desk, near each cab by suspending the control cable from the ceiling, or on a wall. A delayed action switch can be used for closing the door after the apparatus has left the station. Radio-controlled door opening and closing devices also can be installed.
Provisions must be included to operate the doors from the emergency generator and also manually if both the electric supply and the generator fail. The doors should be at least 12 feet wide and 12 feet high—and wider if possible. If the property is large enough, doors at the rear of the apparatus room will be useful.
Apparatus room features
The floor must pitch to floor drains. I prefer drains just inside the overhead doors, but these can be anywhere in the room. The battery charger locations must be determined. The chief must decide whether he prefers portable or built-in chargers. If built-in chargers are used, reels for wires have to be located. The location and type of booster fill lines must be established. These can be from the ceiling or walls and can be manual or electric reels or just a hose connection. Again the choice depends on the budget and desires of the chief. Plenty of electric outlets and hose connections should be provided throughout the apparatus room. Hose bibcocks should be recessed. A water cooler and sufficient map boards and bulletin boards should be included in the room.
Volunteer fire stations need a blackboard on the truck floor so that the location of the alarm and type of fire or emergency can be written on it. This blackboard must be located so that it is readily visible to the volunteers when they reach the truck floor. Ideally, the blackboard should be where it can be read from the cab of each apparatus. The blackboard should be large enough for notices of hydrants out of service, blocked streets and other unusual conditions affecting response.
A board for such notices also should be on the truck floors of stations in paid departments. Many paid and some volunteer departments like to have the locations of all first-alarm response boxes displayed on a wall near the front of the truck floor. In planning the wall space on the truck floor, thought also should be given to providing space for a street and hydrant map for the entire municipality.
Turnout gear storage
There should be facilities for storing helmets, coats and boots and for drying them when necessary. Racks can be on the truck floor or in a room or alcove just off the truck floor. In paid departments, each man should have a place to hang his gear when he is off duty. Ideally, the racks for turnout gear should be in an area with an electric heater for drying at any time of the year and an exhaust fan for removing the damp air. Some volunteer departments like to have wall space or racks (sometimes on casters) near the apparatus so that men can quickly grab their gear and put it on before riding the apparatus.
In volunteer stations, a room or large closet is needed for storing extra dress uniforms. Such a room also can be used for storing turnout gear kept in stock for assignment to individuals or apparatus.
In addition to drying turnout gear, means for drying salvage covers also should be provided. Racks or hooks suspended from the ceiling by block and tackle provide a convenient way of hanging up covers while they dry and take up ceiling space when not in use.
A toilet with shower facilities should be adjacent to the apparatus room so men can clean up after a working fire. Also, the hose-drying and storage facilities should be adjacent to the apparatus room so hose can be easily removed from the engines and replaced.
Apparatus repair room
If the district does its own truck repair and maintenance, a room should be provided for this work. This room again must be serviceable, and any of the finishes mentioned for the apparatus room can be used in this area. In addition, however, the ceiling height in this room must be increased to provide for a truck lift. Also included should be a hoist to remove motors or heavy equipment. Grease racks, oil separators, compressors and almost all the equipment found in any garage should be in this repair room.
The dispatcher’s room is the nerve center of the fire station and the most complicated. The amount of equipment to go into this room will depend on whether the station is a headquarters or a substation and the amount of dispatching. Sometimes the district will dispatch for several departments. In this case, the console and equipment will be more sophisticated. The dispatching room does not have to be adjacent to the apparatus room, but the writer feels it is best if it can be, since the dispatcher can see who is in the apparatus room, easily control the apparatus room, easily control the over-head doors and relay information to the men. If possible, the room should face the front of the building so the dispatcher can control traffic in the street through stoplights in front of the firehouse.
The console can be metal, wood or plastic, but provisions should be made for additions as the district grows. The dispatcher should be able to control all equipment in a headquarters firehouse as well as in other stations. He should control the alarm systems, whether air horns or sirens, base radio, and home radio or home telephonealerting facilities. All calls should be on tape so he can check a wrong call for his own protection if he is accused of taking the call inaccurately. The local civilian defense alert should be connected to his console, and a dead-man alert should be built in to warn the district if the dispatcher is taken ill and can’t receive calls.
The house fire alarm system should be connected through the console to warn the dispatcher, since he frequently will be alone. A house public address system should be included so the dispatcher can give directions to the firemen or contact them when they are in other areas of the firehouse. Maps, a clock, bulletin boards and other equipment should be within easy reach. This room should be well lighted, well heated and air-conditioned. A separate lavatory and a hot plate should be included so the dispatcher can be comfortable and yet not have to leave the room.
The dormitory does not have to be adjacent to the apparatus room, but it should not be too far away. The size will depend on the number of men to be housed. This room should be made as comfortable and quiet as possible, and all conveniences must be provided. The room should be well heated, ventilated and air-conditioned. Lockers for each man should be included, and kitchen, toilet and shower facilities should be nearby. The walls can be painted or covered with a vinyl wall covering, and the ceiling should be acoustical tile. A tackboard should be provided to keep records and to keep the men informed.
If the department is manned by volunteers, the dormitory will not be needed, but instead a spacious meeting room should be included. This should have either a wood or vinyl floor, wood or plaster walls and an acoustical tile ceiling. The architect should be allowed freedom to design a nice room, since this may be used by the public as well as the firemen. A good, quiet ventilating system should be built in to remove smoke and heat when a large assembly is held. Speakers and microphones should be conveniently located so speakers can be easily heard during a dinner.
A kitchen should be adjacent to the meeting room, but the size and equipment to be included in this should be determined by the method of serving dinners, that is, whether they will be catered or cooked on the premises. Ample refrigeration, ranges and cabinet space should be provided, and dishwashing facilities should be built in.
A recreation room should be included near the apparatus floor. This room should be easily maintained and have a vinyl floor, plastic or wood walls and an acoustical tile ceiling. It should include a clock, radio, television, pool table, reading area or anything to make the men comfortable and relaxed so they will be ready for a call on a minute’s notice. The room should be cheerful, well ventilated and airconditioned.
A dayroom or recreation area can be designed to serve as a classroom, which every firehouse should have. There should be a blackboard, preferably 4×8 feet, mounted on a wall and a rollup projection screen. The screen can be mounted over the blackboard to save wall space. Electrical receptacles should be provided in locations that will eliminate the need for extension cords for movie cameras, slide projectors and overhead projectors. This means that distances from the screen will have to be determined for the projection equipment to be used.
In volunteer firehouses that have a kitchen on the second floor as part of the meeting hall facilities on that floor, it is advisable to have at least minimum cooking, refrigeration, cupboard and sink facilities on the truck floor for preparing hot and cold drinks and snacks after drills and fires. These food preparation facilities can be incorporated in a first floor dayroom. Because volunteers may respond from their homes wearing boots, the floor in this area should be of a type that will take the scuffing of rubber boots.
Offices for the chief, fire commissioners and department officers must also be included. These rooms should be comfortable and air-conditioned since these men will spend a great deal of time in them.
After construction starts, the architect should frequently inspect the project to protect the owners’ interests and see that the contractor is supplying what was specified. Too frequently the architect does not give sufficient time to this part of his contract. He or his representative should visit the site at least once a week to properly protect the owners’ interests.
He should offer help to the contractor and interpret the plans and specifications. If the contractor deviates from these without permission, the architect should stop the work. During construction, the architect should check shop drawings and approve requisitions so the owners do not overpay the contractor. The architect should attend the department’s monthly meetings to report and explain the progress made.
Reprints of this article are available. See page 149.