From Dalmatians to Decontamination: 40 Years of Station Evolution

By Ken Newell

The modern fire station is a very specialized facility, not just a garage in which to keep big trucks. The most pronounced change in station design during the past 40 years is also the most obvious-construction costs.

In the 1970s, an average fire station construction cost was $50 to $60 per square foot. Today, the average cost is $190 to $250 per square foot, with much more volatility over the past decade.

Volunteer departments transitioning into combination or career departments have changed the spaces in their stations. Post-transition, these stations have needed sleeping quarters, toilet and shower rooms, and daily-use kitchens. Even something as simple as where firefighters park their personal vehicles and enter the building is affected by volunteer or career status.

Colocating Public Safety Agencies

1 Multiple public safety agencies are combining, such as the Wrightsville Beach (NC) Public Safety Center, which houses fire and police personnel
1 Multiple public safety agencies are combining, such as the Wrightsville Beach (NC) Public Safety Center, which houses fire and police personnel. (Photos courtesy of Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects.)

As municipalities have sought ways of providing better, all-around public safety coverage, and as departments or agencies have looked for ways to share the ever-increasing construction costs, colocation of multiple public safety agencies into one facility has steadily increased. Securing different portions of the building for multiple occupants then becomes a serious design consideration.

When the second occupant is emergency medical service (EMS) personnel, there are often separated sleeping quarters to keep one set of responders from waking the other set with its calls. There are also dedicated EMS supply rooms. Sometimes there are even separate dayrooms and kitchen facilities for the two groups.

When the second occupant is law enforcement, the line of separation is usually more pronounced. More commonly you will have the fire department on one side, police department on the other side, and shared spaces in the center of the facility. Additionally, the law enforcement component is frequently a simple satellite presence comprising a single office and separate toilet. Often these satellite stations are not staffed continuously.

The recently completed Carrboro (NC) Fire Department Station 2 is an example of a sustainable fire station
2 The recently completed Carrboro (NC) Fire Department Station 2 is an example of a sustainable fire station.


The regulatory changes of the past 40 years more severely impact the design of the facility. It seems that these regulations increase yearly. The “essential facility” building code classification requires a more rigidly constructed structure than ever before encountered by public safety. For example, over the past two decades, fire sprinklers began to be required in sleeping quarters and are now quickly becoming mandatory in all spaces. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1991 applies to both public and private areas of a station. Elevators and handicapped facilities have become increasingly present in stations because of the ADA. Regulations regarding storm water retention and quality, landscaping, and oil separation for vehicle drainage areas have added to site sizes, requirements, and costs.

3 The Pleasant Valley Fire Department, Fort Mill, South Carolina, was designed to blend aesthetically into its residential community.
3 The Pleasant Valley Fire Department, Fort Mill, South Carolina, was designed to blend aesthetically into its residential community.

Departments have become more aware that a good fire and rescue facility should have a life span of at least 50 to 75 years. As no one can predict how the built components will need to function in 50 years, efforts now include making the facility and the spaces therein as accommodating as possible for modifications and growth. Departments should be mindful of station areas that will likely need to grow and properly locate and design these areas to more easily expand. Even interior walls are more likely to be constructed of materials that will easily accept future wiring, conduit, and technologies.

Design Characteristics

During the past 10 years, there has been an explosion of sustainability. Some United States fire stations have been in service for 100 to 150 years, proving that good design is sustainable design. However, for the sake of the contemporary definition, “sustainability” represents design and construction practices that significantly reduce or eliminate the negative impact of buildings on the environment and occupants.

4 Designing training props and opportunities into the station is increasingly popular.
4 Designing training props and opportunities into the station is increasingly popular.

Some municipalities now require new stations to be certified through one of the green building processes, such as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED). Many more are simply taking a proactive approach by incorporating as many sustainable practices into the station design and construction as economically feasible. The practical application of modern sustainable efforts proves to be a great means of stewardship and leads to financial benefits in the lifecycle costs of a facility.

Another evolving design characteristic of new stations over the past few decades is the aesthetic response to the community. Designers and departments are paying much more attention to the surrounding “built” environment as they develop a new facility’s appearance. From the overall building size and shape to material selections, newer stations tend to visually fit better into their neighborhoods.

Incorporating Training

During the 1980s, public safety training center design and construction increased significantly. Then designers discovered that many of the training evolutions and opportunities training centers provide could be inexpensively incorporated into station designs. Now it has become common for stations across the country to make it a priority to include training props into their station designs. From training towers to pump-test pits, ladder training, confined space rescue, and rope rescue, the opportunities are only limited by the imagination. The classroom-style training room has also become common and often serves a dual function as a community room.

Today's apparatus bays are more likely to be drive-through, be taller, and have a larger staging area
5 Today’s apparatus bays are more likely to be drive-through, be taller, and have a larger staging area.

Whether it is in a large, metropolitan location or a remote, rural setting, station and site security has become a more important issue. This has resulted in many design changes, such as the proper zoning of public and nonpublic spaces, electronically controlled access to portions of the building, and fenced or gated drives for apparatus return and staff parking. By necessity, the days of allowing the public to wander into open bay doors and through the facility are quickly disappearing.

Station Space

One might think that implementing and advancing information technology (IT) and communications systems would reduce space requirements in the facility, but the opposite has proven to be the case. IT rooms (with proper cooling), wiring closets, cable trays, chases, and so on, have all complicated the systems’ accommodations in the station. Planning for the growth and evolution of these systems over the life of the station can be difficult but is important.

Today’s apparatus look like monster trucks compared with apparatus from 40 years ago. This has resulted in the need for taller and wider bay doors along with increased aisle space and cab-tipping height in the apparatus room.

Departments desire drive-through apparatus bays more than in decades past. This impacts the size of the apparatus room and normally requires a larger site to provide driveways around the building. Many departments that build drive-through bays don’t use them as such-some back in from both directions. Nonetheless, most departments want the flexibility provided to them with drive-through bays, as long as the sites can accommodate them.

Firefighter Health and Safety

Dealing with workplace hazards in the station has made significant impacts to the station design. Some of these efforts have been driven by governmental regulations, but many of the efforts are the result of conscientious firefighters looking out for their own. This effort has added elements to the station such as better exhaust ventilation in the bays, PPE storage rooms instead of hanging racks in the bays, proper location of the ice machine, emergency showers and eyewashes, and the provision for proper extractors and dryers.

Decontamination rooms are also becoming a staple of station design. Regulations now mandate that each department has a decontamination facility, including extractor and wash basins. With the growing emphasis on saving budget dollars, departments are now opting to include a decontamination room in each facility.

Male and Female Spaces

During the past 40 years, one of the greatest impacts on station design has been the ever-increasing role of the female firefighter. Although the ratio of male to female firefighter varies greatly with each department, most departments now have females working alongside their male counterparts. Some departments have opted to ignore any cause for gender separation in bunk areas, locker rooms, and toilet rooms. But, most have incorporated some level of separation in these and other spaces. From low-partition walls in bunk areas and two separate locker rooms to individual sleep rooms and toilet and shower rooms, some departments are still struggling to find the approach that suits them best.

Getting Help

Although it would take much more space to discuss the complete evolution of station design over the past 40 years, the preceding represents some of the prominent changes.

A specialized facility requires a designer that specializes in that building type. Departments will greatly benefit by including an architect with extensive expertise in station design on the project team. This realization has resulted in a category of station designers who can provide the entire design package for your project or who can assist the local design team that may lack this type of experience.

KEN NEWELL, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, IAFC, has been directly involved in planning and designing more than 200 fire and EMS stations and public safety training facilities designed by Stewart-Cooper-Newell Architects, which recently celebrated four decades of designing stations. He has also consulted with other architects on the design of more than 70 public safety projects spanning 26 states. Many of these stations have received design award recognition.

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