Drilling In The Desert

When the city of Tucson, AZ, decided to costruct a Regional Public Safety Academy, it consulted the most important people of all: the rank and file. Bryn Bailer examines the results and discusses how the $14.3 million cutting-edge facility meets the...


When the city of Tucson, AZ, signed up an architectural firm to design its $14.3 million Regional Public Safety Academy, it didn't just sit back and let civilians design the sorely needed, long-awaited training center. Planners talked with the suits, of course, but they were also smart enough to...


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Both older facilities were hampered by space limitations and neighbors who were less than thrilled about smoke that drifted from suppression exercises or noise that emanated from firearms-training areas. And both were burdened with hopelessly out-of-date equipment - like the fire academy's ancient burn-room burner, whose thermostat was adjusted with a knob salvaged from someone's kitchen stove.

Dual Mission Emphasized

In contrast, the new academy (built in the midst of a cactus- and mesquite-studded desert) dominates the sunburned landscape. Some might even call it isolated, were it not for the razor-wire-wrapped world of the Arizona State Prison Complex-Tucson across the street.

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Photo by Frank Anthony Cara/Tucson Fire Department
The academy's administration building houses executive offices for fire personnel on its north side; police personnel occupy offices on the south side. The first floor is dedicated to joint-use and visitor areas.

But open space is exactly what Tucson firefighters and police were looking for in 1984, when local voters approved a $15.5 million bond proposal to fund construction of the public-safety academy. And today, they have plans for much of the still-undeveloped acreage - plans that include a working fire station, a swimming pool for water-rescue training and dormitories for out-of-town trainees.

Existing construction reveals just how well designers understood their mission. From the asphalt up, architectural and engineering features repeatedly recognize the different training needs of firefighters and police officers - and treat both services as equal and autonomous. Police and fire have separate-but-equitable administrative offices, separate training areas, even separate visitor parking areas. But the academy also offers spaces where fire recruits and police recruits can train side-by-side.

At the heart of the campus is the stately administration building, a postmodern structure rendered in mocha brown and forest green. Here are housed visitors' facilities, a display hall, a cafeteria/break room and executive offices. Behind the administration building is a grassy, tree- and sculpture-lined courtyard. It is flanked by several classrooms featuring the latest in audio-visual technology, as well as facilities for computer training, video production, cable TV broadcasting and incident command/fire simulation testing. In December 1997, the courtyard held the academy's first graduation ceremony - for a fire recruit class that began its training at the old site, then helped officials move into the new one.

At the top of the courtyard is the physical training building, the site of first-aid, defense tactics and weightlifting facilities, as well as men's and women's locker rooms built for a total of 130. As with all areas jointly used by police and fire, the physical training building is supervised by representatives from both services - call it a deliberate attempt to head off territoriality at the multi-agency facility.

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Photo by Frank Anthony Cara/Tucson Fire Department
Firefighters ascend an aerial ladder to the top of the six-story drill tower. The burn room is in the foreground; the high-expansion foam oozing out its doors is from an earlier training exercise.

Police training areas are located to the northeast and east sides of the property. They include an outdoor, dirt-berm firearms training area with pistol/shotgun, rifle, 180-degree and practical-combat ranges as well as an open-air K-9 training and obstacle course. Several hundred yards away is the beginning of a "situational village" that consists of a two-story mock residence and mock bar room.

The situational village is only one of several sites where fire and police recruits train together, said Tucson Police Lieutenant Kevin Mayhew, the academy's law enforcement training commander.

"Since we're going to be close to one another, we can use it to do dual practice exercises," he said. "While (fire recruits) are learning to lay a line over a fence, (police recruits) may do point control."