Firehouse® Roundtable: Fire Station Design

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.


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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Some firms, like RRM Design Group from San Luis Obispo, CA; TCA Architecture Planning in Seattle, WA; and CR Architecture + Design in Cincinnati, OH, specialize in fire station and public-safety projects — but under low-bid contracts, a generalist architectural firm may be called to the fore. In that case, it is even more important for firefighters to be part of the planning and design process.

Of course, before ink is put to paper, officials must secure funding for your fire station project, which is no mean feat, even in good economic times.

At Vail, CO, Fire and Emergency Services, securing funding "was a difficult process, and was over 30 years in the making, (due to) constantly getting passed over to competing priorities," said Fire Chief Mark Miller.

Despite rapid growth in the region — and six different consultants' studies indicating the need for a new fire station — it wasn't until 6 million square feet of retail and commercial space was built in five years' time that the Vail Town Council gave the go ahead for a project first discussed in 1968, even predating local construction of Interstate 70.

The department's third station, which will measure 15,300 square feet, is under construction. The $5.2 million project, being built on the site of a former Wendy's restaurant, will feature three apparatus bays, on-site training props and offices for Vail Fire and Emergency Services headquarters.

A department may find funding for new or renovated stations in the form of grants, bond elections or even federal assistance in the wake of natural disasters. It is also wise to involve the community in the decision, particularly if voter approval is needed to pass bond initiatives for the project. Good will toward the fire service may not translate to "yes" votes in the polling booth if the community does not have emotional buy in to the project, said Donald Miller of New York-based Harrison Leifer DiMarco Public Relations.

"There would be an assumption of community support, but many Long Island districts have rejected the fire department's bond referendum to build or improve," said Miller, who designed an award-winning public relations campaign to pass the Centerport, NY, Fire Department firehouse improvement bond, which had been defeated on four previous attempts. Miller also knows the profession from the inside, having served as fire commissioner for the Freeport, NY, Fire Department for more than a decade.

For firefighters and chief officers — all used to problem solving and taking direct action — the dynamic design process is likely to be the most engaging part of a station construction project. Failure to involve them in the process can result in stations that don't meet a department's needs, or in embarrassing and costly mistakes. A department does not want to have to go back to the mayor or city manager and explain why a new station's brand-new bay doors are too narrow for the ladder truck to enter.

"All our specified products and systems must pass the three part 'Bubba' Rule: Can Bubba use it? Can Bubba break it? Can Bubba fix it?" quipped Kirk Van Cleave of RRM Design Group, which has designed a variety of firehouses in California, including several Los Angeles Fire Department stations. "Firefighters tend to be abusive towards their environments. All materials and systems installed in a firehouse must be able to withstand this usage. Otherwise we won't specify them in our designs."

Overcoming Challenges

Firehouse® surveyed a cross section of fire officials, architects, designers and other experts about the fire station design and construction process:

What is the most challenging part of fire station projects?

Assistant Chief Susan Rosenthal, Seattle Fire Department:

In some cases, the modern and larger replacement fire stations would not fit on the original small piece of land. As a result of this, a number of stations had to be built in new locations. It was challenging to find sites where we could move these stations while maintaining or improving response times. There was also the added challenge of selecting sites for temporary fire stations while new or remodeled stations are under construction; this required us to build out temporary/interim quarters to house personnel and equipment.

Mark D. Shoemaker, AIA, LEED® AP, CR architecture + design: