The Long Journey to a Healthier Fire Service

Dec. 14, 2023
Janet Wilmoth explains how the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives have influenced fire station design.

Twenty years ago, the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) gathered 45 national associations, organizations, and media together at a Firefighter Safety Summit in Tampa, FL, to address the increasing number of firefighter fatalities. Eventually, the result of that 2004 meeting was the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives.

One of those initiatives, #13 Psychological Support, reads, “Firefighters and their families must have access to counseling and psychological support.”

How does that relate to designing a new or renovating an old fire station? Every year since 2015, important advances in fire station designs have had an impact on the physical health of firefighters. In 2023, fire station advances in the physical and mental health of firefighters continued.


Hot zones

A major shift in fire station designs was introduced at the 2015 Station Design Conference in Baltimore. Architect Paul Erickson, FGM Architects, formerly LeMay Erickson Willcox Architects, introduced the “Hot Zone” concept, which immediately called attention to the need to reduce cancer-causing carcinogens in fire stations.

Hot Zone procedures defined red, yellow and green areas for firefighters returning from incidents, and impacted stations under construction and efforts to update existing fire stations.

Following 2015, each year offered additional steps to address the increasing number of firefighters with cancer. Designated areas in the station included new preventive procedures, including onsite hose-down and removal of turnout gear. The goal was to restrict cancer-causing carcinogens exposure to firefighters and from spreading into the living areas. One Montana fire department built a separate structure from the fire station to address decontamination of exposed apparatus, including a space to immediately clean equipment and turnout gear, and additional showers for members.

Over the next few years, presentations at the Station Design Conference continued to introduce trends for the interior and exterior of fire stations, including renewable energy systems (solar panel systems), advanced security technology, and fitness room upgrades to accommodate alternative workouts including yoga. The topic of firefighter health and sleep deprivation and shared design concepts were also addressed.


Mental health

A couple of years ago, Erickson introduced yet another major shift in fire station designs by focusing on the mental health of firefighters. Let me explain why Erickson’s presentation was another “major shift” for fire departments.

Back in 2011, the NFFF, as part of the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives, shared a report from a meeting on Issues of Depression and Suicide in the Fire Service. In the report, the term “behavioral health” was used instead of “mental health.”

Why? Less than a decade ago, the stigma of mental health was taboo in the fire service (law enforcement, too). A firefighter could lose their job if they were diagnosed with mental illness or mental health problems. Eventually, the term behavioral health transitioned to what it was covering: mental health, including depression and PTSD.

Erickson researched how medical facilities addressed emotional issues for their staff. He suggested ways to lower levels of stress and fatigue for crews in fire stations. Among the suggestions were more natural light and windows in sleeping quarters and the use of chromotherapy or healing colors that correspond with the purpose of the room. Additionally, space for alcoves or areas to take a ‘breather’ or meditate were added.

Yes, it was a long journey to implement a physically and mentally healthier environment in fire stations for firefighters. Why would some firefighters push back on these efforts to keep them healthy? We’ve heard of the disregard for the decontamination process—on scene and returning to the fire station. Skipping the steps or time involved to clean gear and shower. Seriously? Their health and lives could be at stake. They also endanger other crew members.

Don’t let it happen in your department, otherwise years of effort are being wasted.

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