Building Your Own Station House Map


Memory is SUCH a fragile thing. When the alarm goes out, as the officer and crew don their gear, the best thing the driver or engineer can do is to make sure he knows where he’s going. Most drivers will admit to the occasional brain malfunction. We’ve all heard of assigned crews recognizing the street name but not having a clue as to where the street is situated. How do we address this issue?

Map books are clumsy and slow to thumb through. Computer-aided dispatch and computerized map systems are only as good as the data they provide. In “Tips for Learning Your Way Around Your Response Area” (Fire Engineering, October 2006), Battalion Chief Steve Prziborowski provides an excellent overview of how to become familiar with the streets in your response area. A good station house map should be an integral part of a firehouse’s response plan.

Why Build Your Map?

You can’t buy a good station house map. You have to make it. I’ve seen the printouts from the street department—sheets of paper butted together on the wall. The professionally produced maps of most cities often provide too much information. The print is too small. The street you’re looking for is too hard to find. The most efficient map will reflect your running district and be easy to read. Position it where you can easily access it on the way out to the apparatus bay.

There are several other reasons to build a station house map. It is an exercise in camaraderie. All who contribute to the project feel a sense of pride. It is a task guaranteed to focus your crew’s attention on the importance of streets. When visitors come to the station asking directions, you can easily direct them to the location. Finally, in many ways, a hand-drawn map is both a piece of art that will be much admired and a tool that crews will use long after you retire.


If your station decides to build a station house map, one of the first decisions to make is where to put it. Location is everything where this map is concerned. Not every station house is structured in such a manner as to provide a good spot for it. Plan for a wall space approximately eight feet by eight feet. You should be able to easily spot the map when you enter a room. You don’t want to have to backtrack. Remember, where you start from is as important as where you’re going, which is the door to the apparatus bay. Common locations for maps, in order of preference, are listed below:

  1. The kitchen. It is the most-used room in the firehouse.
  2. The watchbooth. It’s the communication hub of the firehouse.
  3. The dayroom. This puts the map where members can study it regularly.
  4. The front door. This is good for visitors.

(1) Views of segments of Station 28’s district map. (Photos by Bill Ehrgood.)

Do not post the map in the apparatus bay. It might seem to be a good location on first thought, but it’s cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and dirty all seasons. Also, it is not a place you would want to take a visitor to or a place you will stand looking at the map and reviewing the streets mentally. The hallway adjacent to the apparatus bay is a better choice, but it still limits casual review. It also creates a choke point: When crew members are running by at the report of a fire, it could make it difficult to concentrate.

Once you’ve selected a site, prep it. I recommend attaching two four- by eight-foot sheets of ½- or ¾-inch plywood to the wall studs running from the baseboard up. Prime this wood base with paint. Then tape and skim on a couple of coats of drywall compound, and prime the map again. Once you have a flat, smooth surface, two coats of an off-white latex semi-gloss will provide the proper surface for map making. Save some of the paint; you may need to use it to cover up a mistake.

(2) Color is used to break up the map’s appearance so it is easier to focus on an area. Number breaks are parallel to the street to which they refer.

I don’t recommend using gypsum board in place of the plywood. The first map I helped make was in the 1980s. We used gypsum board as a base; it quickly developed gouges here and there. Although the map is still in use, it looks worse for the wear. The second station house map I was involved in making has a plywood base and is showing less wear.

Only your station’s crew can determine how much map is right for your station. Putting too many streets on the map—too much information in too small a type size—makes the map an ineffective tool. The map should reflect the traditional 10 streets in all four directions and the streets to which your company responds second due—all the needs of your station. The map may not necessarily be square. Because of the locations of the other fire stations, the layout of the streets and geographical limitations (a river), our current station map is taller than it is wide.

I recommend that the map makers use an overhead projector for the initial outline of the major streets and features. We folded a map of our city to reflect our desired response area and took that map to a photocopy shop, where it was converted into an overlay that we could project onto the designated wall area.

By moving the projector and adjusting the focus, we were able to display exactly what we wanted. With a sharp pencil and a ruler, we transferred the outline of the major streets and freeways to the map in less than an hour. This quickly provided an accurate proportional framework. Warning: If you bump the projector during this part of the job, it can be very difficult to get the streets to all line up again. We initially tried using the projector to do the residential streets also, but we found that hand drawing these streets from our own maps provided a more accurate representation.

Color is very important in making an easy-to-use map. We used blue for the freeways, green for the major arteries, and black for residential streets. The fire station locations are in red. In the first map, we used brown to display alleys. This muddied the map’s look and detracted from its usefulness. Some maps I have seen depict the location of every hydrant in color. This can be visually confusing. Information overload is as bad as insufficient data.

Except for the black permanent markers, we found that the standard colored marker created a pale line. At a local crafts store, we were able to acquire paint-based colored markers that provided a solid color. You shake these markers to stir the paint. When using this type of marker, be aware that this is paint and takes time to dry. You might not be able to finish all of one area without smudging. With a little preplanning, you should be able to break the areas of the map down into sections to be done each duty day. These markers dry out after several of weeks if you do not use them.


Following are some other suggestions when creating the map:

1 Writing in the names of the streets works better than pasting the names. When we pasted printed street names on the first map, the paper yellowed, and about 25 of the names quickly fell off.

2 Personalize the map. We had had much discussion about placing a logo on the map. One day, Firefighter Chad Girod stood up on a chair with a serving bowl and started drawing. He sketched the design in pencil and then filled in the outline with a water-based tempura.

3 Have the members working on the map sign and date it when it’s completed. Making a station house map is part of the station’s history; be sure to give credit to the people who created it.

4 Initially, the outline of the local mall was placed next to the map. Fire department connections were added, but the result was confusing. Eventually, we painted over that part of the map. Perhaps something like this could be done effectively, but consider drawing it on paper before adding it to the map.


A station house map will not fit in every station, but if you can find a place for one, it is a worthy addition and an excellent tool for learning streets.

FRED McLEOD has been with Columbus (OH) Division of Fire for 24 years. He is a paramedic/lieutenant assigned to Station 19.

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