A fire station is more than a house with a big garage — as anyone who has experienced the travails of funding, designing and constructing a new one (or remodeling an old one) can attest. Over the years, firehouses have gone from mere places of storage for hand pumpers retrieved by...
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A fire station is more than a house with a big garage — as anyone who has experienced the travails of funding, designing and constructing a new one (or remodeling an old one) can attest.
Over the years, firehouses have gone from mere places of storage for hand pumpers retrieved by volunteers in colonial America to well-run stables housing teams of horses that pulled equipment to the 19th-century firegrounds to modern stations equipped with high-tech communications and firefighting equipment, and living quarters designed to accommodate the needs of the fire service's changing workforce and mission.
Firehouses come in a variety of sizes, ranging from modest stations for volunteer departments to multimillion-dollar, public safety complexes shared by fire, police and emergency management agencies. Some stations are new construction, while others have been rehabilitated by renovation or structural additions. Still others are adaptive-reuse projects in which old office buildings, warehouses or other properties have been reconfigured to serve as fire stations.
Professionals Can Make the Job Easier
Building or renovating a fire station is not an easy task, but with the right guidance from professionals — architects, land-use professionals, engineers and building contractors, legal counsel, interior designers, community outreach experts, local elected officials and others — it can be accomplished.
"Two of the hardest things you'll ever do is open a fire station in a neighborhood that never had one and close a fire station in a neighborhood that already has one," said Menlo Park, CA, Fire Protection District Chief Harold Schapelhouman, citing an observation by a fire chief predecessor. "They're not my buildings. They belong to the people."
Some departments acquire new stations in innovative ways.
In Boston, MA, the fire department elected to sell the station housing old Engine 10 — or, more to the point, sold the prime financial-district real estate on which it was located — to a land-use developer for use in a Boston Harbor waterfront development project. In return, the developer built a $4 million firehouse on the first two floors of a new high-rise office tower in the redevelopment project. The larger station houses an engine company, rescue company, tower unit, hazmat unit and a deputy chief.
In California's San Mateo County and San Francisco Bay Area, the Menlo Park Fire District freed up space at its overcrowded main fire station by shifting personnel to a location one block away — a 6,500-square-foot former medical clinic that was gutted and retrofitted for administration and fire prevention staff. One estimate to build a new station came in at $19.5 million, but purchasing the new building and remodeling cost just $4.5 million. Residential lots were purchased behind two other existing stations that will be reworked in phases, starting with the addition of new communications towers and emergency power generators.
"We don't want to see the projects not move forward, but we also don't want to eat the elephant," Schapelhouman said. "There are things you can do to keep your projects alive — phase the projects, especially in this economy. The key elements are your equipment, facilities and people. They're all a priority, but you can't focus on just one."
In Katrina's Path
In parts of Louisiana hard hit by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, many fire stations are still under construction, hindered in part because it has been difficult to get work crews to devastated job sites for extended lengths of time, said Lisa Quarls, an architect with New Orleans-based Sizeler Thompson Brown Architects. The firm is building two fire stations in Lower Plaquemines Parish, where homes were flooded to the rooftops, gale-force winds ripped down trees and power lines and the only source of hot meals for months were large community kitchens run by humanitarian aid groups.