10 Tips For Selecting a Fire Station Site

Aug. 1, 2014
Forest Hooker and Brian Harris look at ideas to navigate the process of evaluating and acquiring property for future fire station locations and needs.

Selecting the right piece of land for a new fire station is among the most important decisions to be made when designing a new facility. A station’s location is a key element to providing effective service based on both current and future service demands driven by actual and projected hazards and risks.

Beyond the geographical location, more immediate contextual features affect the suitability of a site, such as access to arterials, traffic, terrain, available utilities and the general density and character of the targeted surroundings. Evaluating and acquiring property for a future fire station can be a complex and lengthy process.

As you begin the process

For those embarking on the process, here are some helpful tips:

1. Talk with others who have worked through the process.

Your peers and colleagues with recent experience with the site-acquisition process are among your best resources. Tour recently built facilities and find out what did and didn’t work during the site selection process.

2. Assemble the right team.

Start with assembling the internal team and assign clear decision-making roles and responsibilities. Consideration should also be given to establishing a community oversight committee. Typically, a team of professionals will need to be hired to assist in navigating site selection. This team may include architects, real-estate/land acquisition specialists, legal counsel, response-modeling consultants, geotechnical engineers, environmental engineers, traffic planners and community outreach consultants.

3. Understand your response needs.

Through geographic information system (GIS) technology modeling, and a clear understanding of your local circumstances, the mapping of current and future values, hazards, risks and protection can be done, which will help in defining a target site location. This effort should include economic and growth projections.

In short, the goal is to identify what there is to protect and how best to protect it based on current and future available resources. Always keep in mind that this is a dynamic relationship often based on multiple facilities/resources and your standard of coverage and deployment plan.

4. Know a site’s constraints.

What can be built on a site is governed by many factors, including land-use and building codes, easements, utility availability, transportation department requirements and environmental and geological hazards. Determine and understand a given site’s constraints and encumbrances early in the evaluation process.

5. Test prospective sites.

To evaluate a site, you need to understand what will be built on the site. A fully developed set of construction documents is not needed; however, determining the anticipated maximum building footprint for the station and other site improvement needs is necessary to evaluate whether a piece of property can be feasibly developed. An architect can help with a series of “test-to-fit” studies that will eliminate unviable sites and identify sites that warrant further due diligence.

6. Evaluate multiple sites.

Look at multiple sites and keep options open. A process that moves from the macro to the micro level will cull the list of candidate sites and is an efficient use of due diligence dollars. For example, an initial list of prospective properties may include sites that test well against response modeling criteria; this list can then be narrowed by eliminating sites that are too small or ill-configured, then further narrowed by eliminating sites that are not feasible due to constraints (see Tip 4).

Once a short list has been established, dollars can be invested in more costly evaluations such as testing the suitability of soils and investigating environmental considerations. If a potential site is not shortlisted, document why. More often than not, someone down the road will ask the question. Make clear, defensible decisions that are well documented.

7. Use an evaluation matrix.

A weighted evaluation matrix is a useful tool in identifying the right site. The matrix involves listing and scoring the key qualities of prospective sites. The totaling of scores demonstrates a site’s comparative suitability and strengths based on departmental and community priorities.

8. Assess acquisition options.

Beyond acquiring land available on the open market or negotiating a sale with a private owner, government entities have additional acquisition options, including condemnation (by eminent domain) or it may be that local government land is available for use. All options should be evaluated and specific consideration should be given to the option of exercising condemnation; e.g., fully understand the political dimension.

9. Understand the neighborhood.

“The only thing harder than moving a fire station out of a neighborhood is to build a fire station in a neighborhood” is a fire service truism. Evaluate the community concerns of a prospective site’s neighborhood. Community outreach efforts are well worth the effort and demonstrating the fire service’s good will may positively impact the community’s receptiveness. Make sure the neighbors understand all of the benefits that come along with adding a fire station to their neighborhood.

10. Do not underestimate the time, effort and costs.
Acquiring a site can be a lengthy and complex process. Costs may be affected by market volatility. Multiple properties may need to be investigated before finding the best fit.

Build contingencies into schedules and budgets to handle protracted timelines and unanticipated costs. Conservative planning will help you weather the bumps and surprises that are not uncommon when endeavoring to find land for a new fire station.

About the Author

Brian Harris and Forest Hooker

BRIAN HARRIS, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, NCARB, is a principal with TCA Architecture Planning Inc., national consultants on emergency facilities since 1960, having been involved in the planning and design of more than 200 projects. With over 150 projects to his credit (including fire stations, public safety buildings, training facilities, maintenance facilities, EOC and 911 centers), Harris pioneered the first LEED-certified fire station, training facility and highest-rated energy-efficient Platinum facility in the U.S. 

FOREST HOOKER, RA, LEED AP BD+C, is an associate with TCA Architecture Planning Inc. Fire facility design is a primary focus of his architectural career. Having worked on 20-plus facilities over his 18 years of experience, Hooker has a keen understanding of fire station design and construction. Hooker is a published author and speaker on fire facility design. He has won multiple awards for his fire station projects, most recently the Station Style 2011 Bronze award for Northshore Fire Station 51 in Kenmore, WA.

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