Station Design Supplement: Part 1 - Built to Last

Fire stations are among the most complex, heavily used municipal buildings found anywhere. Simultaneously, they are garages housing millions of dollars’ worth of apparatus; they are dormitories; and they have expansive kitchens, training rooms and...


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That’s where experience and expertise come in. Having an architectural firm that knows what it is doing when it comes to designing a fire station is vitally important in coming up with a fire station that firefighters and responders can live with for decades, Enyart said. He added that when he consults with fire officials, he is often able to sketch a conceptual design while conversing about the project, on the spot, just to get a visual feeling of what a building might look like based on needs, desires and lot size and limitations.


And, having architects who know the traditions of fire stations is important as well, Enyart said. While hose towers are essentially obsolete when it comes to drying hose, they are a symbolic design element of fire stations and communities often want to incorporate them into the structure.


“We tend to be on the contemporary side of design, but we realize there are some traditions that need to be maintained,” Enyart said. “It’s important to come up with a custom design that fits the community, keeping in mind function has to come first.”


Enyart said a skillful architect will always consider location when designing a fire station. Seemingly minor considerations, like where apparatus headlights point when entering and exiting a building or the kinds of landscaping planted around the structure, and even how pedestrians encounter the station are all important considerations. Noise attenuation, lighting and outside speakers must also be considered to be thoughtful neighbors in residential areas.
“You want your fire station to be a welcome part of the community,” Enyart said.

 

Embracing new technologies

Brian Harris, a principal and owner of TCA Architecture Planning, said fire stations must be resilient to withstand the kind of use and abuse they will be subjected to over the decades in which they are in service.


“They have to last 50 to 75 years,” Harris said. “They have to be flexible to handle change and be ‘green’ (sustainable) and be able to keep energy costs in check. The most important thing, however, is they be designed for the next generation of firefighters and emergency workers.”
As new technology becomes integrated in the fire service, fire stations must be able to accommodate those changes and needs. In the age of robotics and drones and who knows what in the future, fire stations ought to be easily configurable to meet the demands of an increasingly technological society. “Stations need to be as resilient as possible,” Harris said, going back to his root philosophy.


The fire service is ever evolving and changing, he said, noting that firefighters are now more often responding to emergency medical calls than to actual fires. Communities need to take into account how their stations will be used over the decades when considering new fire stations. “Fire departments are going to have to say, ‘We need X amount of space for the next 30 years,’” Harris said. “It’s a different mindset. You have to look at the planning horizon.”


Another consideration is geographic location, Harris said, noting that what fire departments are doing in Alaska is different from department needs in Texas. “Every region and community’s needs are different,” he said, adding that architects need to be mindful of that fact when designing stations.


In his 30 years of designing stations, however, Harris said most fire stations and emergency facilities will almost always need expansion. Therefore, designing for future expansions during the initial construction phase will almost always save money in the long run.


Long-term operational costs always need to be considered when designing a fire station, so durability is important when selecting materials to be used during construction of fire stations. Durability is achievable, and affordable, with new technology and techniques, according to Harris, adding that structural systems provide plenty of opportunity, not only for energy efficiency, but long life.


Fire stations are huge investments for communities that rely on them not only to house firefighters, responders and their equipment, but to provide emergency shelters for the public during disasters, Harris said. That’s why they need space for disaster relief supplies, emergency power and lodging spaces. Stations built in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s were not designed to meet the needs of today’s society and fire departments, he said, noting that many communities consider remodeling older stations to save money.