The role of fire departments has evolved and grown over the past few decades. Not only do firefighters put out flames and respond to medical emergencies, they’re also taking on growing roles in homeland security planning, community health and, in some cases, transportation planning.
“We want to solve every problem that doesn’t require a gun,” says Tom Jenkins, the fire chief in Rogers, Ark., and a vice president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC).
As the mission of the fire service has changed, the design of fire houses has evolved as well. The classic image of a fire station -- a big brick building with roll-up garage doors and a shiny pole for firefighters to slide down -- is outdated. But fire chiefs and station architects say new designs can take city officials by surprise, especially because many of the more-modern elements have higher upfront costs than older components.
“These are once-in-a-lifetime -- or at least once-in-a-generation -- renovations or expansions or new buildings,” says Ted Galante, the founder of the Galante Architecture Studio, which has designed fire stations in New York, Boston and other cities. “When it comes to construction costs, city council members and city managers don’t necessarily get it, but four seconds or eight seconds makes all the difference in the world in getting [firefighters to] a fire.”
Updated stations not only make it easier to get firefighters out the door, they also help emergency responders stay healthier and better prepared for calls when they come in.
Here’s a look at some of the features that are becoming more common in state-of-the-art facilities.
Folding Vehicle Bay Doors
For decades, fire stations predominantly used the same sort of overhead roll-up doors that many people use in their home garages. But there are a few problems with those doors. First, Galante says, the firefighters driving the engines often can’t see high enough from out the windshield to know when the overhead doors are completely open. In the past, truck operators have pulled forward too early and ripped off the bottom part of the door. In fact, the problem is so common that the New York Fire Department keeps extra door panels in its firehouses.
Most important, roll-up doors take longer to open than folding doors. The overhead doors cover the entire vehicle bay, but folding closet-style doors cover half the bay and meet in the middle. That means they can open some several seconds faster. And in emergency response, several seconds mean the difference between life and death. John Sinclair, the IAFC president, says door-opening times in a new station in his department in Ellensburg, Wash., dropped from 20 seconds with roll-up doors to 3.5 seconds with folding doors. “When you’re not breathing," Sinclair says, "that 16 seconds is kind of important to you.”
Expense is an issue, however: Folding doors cost roughly twice as much as old-school overhead doors. That makes them a tempting target for budget-conscious city officials. “One discussion we often have is: How do you weigh costs against the lives you save in that four seconds of time to pull somebody out of a burning building?” Galante says. “I think it’s a marginal cost. It’s probably 0.1 percent of the cost of renovating a building.”
Studies show that firefighters get cancer more often than the general population. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for example, looked at nearly 30,000 firefighters who worked in Chicago, Philadelphia and San Francisco between 1950 and 2009. It found that firefighters had higher rates of cancer in their respiratory, digestive and urinary systems. They were also twice as likely as the general population to have mesothelioma, a rare cancer often caused by exposure to asbestos.
That has several implications for station design, as architects try to minimize firefighters’ exposure to dangerous chemicals. Over the past several decades, that has meant that new stations have included hoses or other ventilation systems for their engines and ambulances.
More recently, though, designers have tried to keep dangerous residue from fires -- soot, dust and debris -- from spreading throughout the firehouse. They have created “hot” and “cool” zones within the buildings. The idea is to keep potential carcinogens isolated in the hot zones. So firefighters who return for a call will take off their turnout gear and shower before they return to their living quarters.
Gone are the days of barracks-style sleeping quarters. Nowadays, firefighters generally have individual sleeping areas with shared bathrooms.
Part of the reason for the move is to better accommodate a mix of men and women serving together as firefighters. Smaller living quarters also make it possible to wake up only those specific crew members who are needed for a given call, rather than everyone at the firehouse.
“If you wake up, you get the adrenaline rush and there’s nowhere for you to go,” says Jenkins, the fire chief from Arkansas. “The other, more tangible benefit is, if we don’t wake these people up that don’t need to be awakened, that means in two hours, when they do need to get up, they’re a little more ready to solve a problem.”
There are some drawbacks to the new arrangements, though, says Galante. Many departments found that giving people separate sleeping areas reduces camaraderie and opportunities for team-building among firefighters. Several chiefs have prohibited their firefighters from staying in their bedrooms during the day so that crews will have a better chance to bond.
Alerting crews separately is a lot easier in smaller jurisdictions than it is for large cities, Galante adds. Coordinating that approach across dozens of firehouses in a city like Boston would require a lot more information technology than in a suburb with a handful of stations.
Fighting fires is hard, physical work. As a result, stations increasingly include facilities to help emergency responders stay in good shape. Outfitting stations with gyms also gives firefighters a way to better cope with the stress of the job.
While exercise equipment has long been found around firehouses, Galante says separate facilities help ensure that the users aren’t breathing in toxic air while they work out. The fitness centers can also be shared with police or other city departments that need similar facilities.
City officials have begun to recognize the value of the fitness centers, which means they’re becoming less likely to cut them from the construction budget, Galante adds.
The classic firehouse pole fell out of favor years ago; they were blamed for many firefighter injuries. Taking the stairs seemed like the safer bet. A few departments even tried using slides, but the idea never gained popularity as they take up too much room in the station.
But departments are taking another look.
For one thing, many are questioning the injury data from years' past: There's some evidence that firefighters falsely attributed poles for their injuries.
For another, pole manufacturers have made improvements in design. They have incorporated features like clamshell seals, which seal off the hole and protect firefighters’ living quarters from engine exhaust.
But most important, Galante says, is speed. “There are more and more requirements to get in a fire truck and start it,” he says. “The trucks are all plugged in. They’re connected to all sorts of devices. Rolling out the door just takes more time, so getting to the truck in the fastest way possible is still in the interest [of fire departments]. That’s why poles are coming back into favor.”