Do You Really Need A Drive-Through Station? Part 1

By Don Collins

Maybe, maybe not. How do you make the choice? Below are some of the issues.

But first, a little narrow history: Most think drive-through stations are an outgrowth of concerns raised in the last quarter of the 20th century over damage incurred by apparatus and stations in backing accidents. This is true to a large degree, but I have in my collection of fire station photos, images of a large brick fire station in Massachusetts designed shortly after the turn of the 20th century, not as a drive-through but as a pull-through. Yes, a pull-through. At the time the station was designed, the fire department asked for a station where their horse-drawn steamers and aerial devices could be pulled forward from the rear of the station into the apparatus bays. The information I received in visiting and photographing the station was that the department’s officers and members at the time knew it would be easier to get a team of horses to go forward into an apparatus bay than it was to get a team of horses to back into a bay. I know nothing about horses, but it sounds plausible. By the time the station was actually completed, gasoline-powered tractors had replaced the horses. Nearly 90 years later, the large career station is still in use, having undergone a major interior renovation in 2014.

Later, doing a study of fire stations for a municipality in Oklahoma, I was introduced to the department’s photo archives. There I found a photo of one of its early volunteer stations built circa 1870 that was also designed and built as a pull-through. A single door at the rear of the apparatus floor provided access to the two apparatus positions.

Fire stations with apparatus bay doors at the front and back gained in popularity with fire department administrations as a way to eliminate backing accidents and a means to eliminate having to have personnel in the street acting as road guards as apparatus backed into quarters. The drive-through station as a concept gained additional momentum after a 1979 publication advocating the drive-through station. The same study also advocated placing the daytime rooms on one side of the apparatus floor and the nighttime rooms on the other side. Why not to do the latter is another article, but I will ask you, does anyone reading this live in a house with their car garage in the middle? 

Backing accident increases can be attributed to the advent of larger apparatus bodies and cab enclosures and other cab changes that decreased rearward vision from the driver’s seat. We began to rely solely on rearview mirrors mounted to the cab doors. But, the mirrors and mirror mountings were primitive. I can remember backing a mid-1970s aerial where the door mirrors vibrated so bad you could hardly make out the door opening! 

So, what are some of the pro and con issues, and how do you make a decision on drive-through or nondrive-through when you may have to live with your choice for the life of the station?

Drive-Through Pros
There is less opportunity for an accident in a drive-through station if the driveway, apron, and entry portals are designed correctly and the driver and officer remain alert until the apparatus is in quarters and the motor has been shut down. I have heard it many times: “There are a lot fewer accidents per mile going forward than there are accidents per mile going backward. This may be true, but I know of at least one accident in Virginia where the apparatus floor roof was collapsed by pulling an aerial into the station from the rear apron. It can happen if you neglect to retract the outriggers!

Drive-Through Cons
It takes considerably more lot size to have a drive-through station. In the absence of a corner lot and side street, you will need enough room for a driveway connecting the street to the rear apron. The driveway must go down the right side of the station (right side being defined as viewed from the street). You will need an apron in the rear that is at least 80 percent of the length of the longest anticipated apparatus to be housed at the station in order to maneuver the apparatus into its bay such that it is parallel to the stall. The driveway will have to extend beyond the end of the apron before turning to the apron. All drives to the rear apron should be such that the driver is only making right turns. Only right turns afford the driver of a fire apparatus with the best vision of potential obstructions. The radius connecting the left side of the driveway to the left side of the apron should be at lease 25 feet in length. On a recent project in Ohio, the rear driveway alone added $125,000 to the project cost. That is money that could have gone into improving the quality of the station.

You will also need a driveway on the other (or left) side of the station as an “alarm” bypass. If an alarm is transmitted for your apparatus while you are on the driveway or apron returning to quarters, you do not want to drive through the station in responding. Doing so might jeopardize the safety of firefighters from a second piece of equipment as they cross the apparatus floor heading to their seat assignment. The bypass drive can also serve as a staging area for “visiting” apparatus during joint training events. Having a rear apron does not negate the need for a front apron long enough to accommodate the longest apparatus to be housed in the station. You still may have a need to stage an apparatus on the front apron.

Most stations designed as a drive-through that I have visited no longer function as such. The back of the stall has become the parking spot for another active company or medic unit, or a reserve apparatus, or rescue boat, or equipment trailer, or some other equipment needing to be sheltered that does not even belong to the fire department. 

It does not have to be equipment with wheels to negate a drive-through setup. The space behind an apparatus often becomes the storage spot for all that other “stuff” we seem to collect without having the slightest idea of where it is to be stored—everything from portable grills to training props.

Drive-through stations need a service hydrant at the rear apron. But, knowing that there are times when it will not function as a drive-through, consider putting a second hydrant on the front apron. Drive-through stations need hose bibs on the exterior at all four corners of the apparatus floor to ensure convenient access for a garden hose hookup to wash down apparatus after a run. 

In visiting stations I have yet to witness an apparatus return to the station via the rear apron, stop and discharge a firefighter for the sole purpose of making the exhaust hookup before entering the station. The exhaust hookup has always been completed after the apparatus has stopped at the “staged” position. Maybe it is because the hookup has been left dangling at the far end of the station. Not hooking up the exhaust negates the purpose of having the exhaust 50 percent of the time. On the other hand, I have witnessed a back-in station where the apparatus stopped short of the door, discharged a firefighter who retrieved the hookup dangling just inside the door placing it on the exhaust pipe before backing into the station was resumed. Maybe we need the manufacturers to provide hookups that automatically track to the rear of the station once that have disengaged from the apparatus.

Drive-through stations require interior bollards at the front bay doors.

All the surface area dedicated to apparatus movement required for a drive-through station compounds the issue of storm water runoff detention. 

Drive-through stations require twice as many apparatus bay doors. Maintenance issues are potentially doubled. Twice as many doors means twice the opportunity for air loss and a corresponding increase in apparatus floor heating cost.

Selecting a drive-through configuration means the loss of the back wall as a place for storage cabinet, racks, etc. and the possible location of some of the apparatus floor support rooms. This will compound getting all the support spaces you need along the two side walls. 

If you must have a drive-through station, strongly consider picking a site that will allow the apparatus floor to be turned parallel the street. This will cut down on the amount of pavement required to get the apparatus in and out of the station. Drive-through stations with the apparatus floor turned to be parallel the street have been constructed in Carrboro, North Carolina, and Columbus, Indiana, among other places.

Part 2 will cover back-in pros and cons.

DON COLLINS is a professor emeritus in architecture, a 35-year veteran of the fire service, and a fire station programming and design consultant to fire departments and architects. He has been a speaker at each F.I.E.R.O. Fire Station Design Symposium since its inception. He serves as the organizing judge for the annual F.I.E.R.O. Fire Station Design Award Program.

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