Part three of a series.

In the previous article we discussed the spaces in and uses of a fire station, or the fire station layout. These various functions and spaces have to be organized into a reasonable, efficient, economic, and buildable whole—a design.

Those involved in the fire station design process must understand their responsibilities to affected parties. First, the building must suit the needs of the firefighters. After all, they will be the ones using it on a day-to-day basis. Its basic purpose is to support them and make their response to an emergency situation as efficient as possible. A good-looking, economical building that hinders response obviously has failed its purpose.

Second, the fire station must suit the needs of the fire department as a whole. It should be easily maintainable so as not drain the department’s resources and reasonably economical to construct so the department can fulfill its operational needs. A beautiful building that functions well but consumes too much of the department’s time and money will be a dead weight around the neck of the department for many years to come.

Third, the fire station must suit the needs of the community it serves. A fire station that intrudes into the community aesthetically or functionally can only strain the department’s relationship with the community and, in the long run, interfere with efficient emergency response.

Finally, the fire station must suit future needs. Those involved with the building project must realize that they are not the only ones who will be using the building— many generations of firefighters will be operating from it. The design must be generalized. Special interests or personality quirks should not influence it. No one can predict with absolute certainty what the future of firefighting will hold, but the building can in many ways be made flexible enough to accept the changes that will inevitably occur. With these responsibilities in mind, your architect is ready to design the fire station.


Placement on site. The placement of the building on the site will have a major impact on its acceptance by the community and on its efficient operation. if the building is too close to the street it will appear to hover over the rest of the community. If the building is set too far back on the site, on the other hand, this will interfere with efficient response time. Each site must be looked at in the context of its neighborhood. An arrangement suitable for a highly urbanized area is not suitable for a rural one.

Over the years many fire stations developed as square brick buildings surrounded by a sea of asphalt paving with a number of rusty auxiliary sheds scattered around the site. To most people such a station is an ugly, unwanted neighbor. Landscaping and a neat appearance may be expensive, but they are necessary if the community is to accept the new station.

Orientation to maximize energy efficiency—“passive solar design”—can significantly reduce fuel costs over the fife of the building. A southsoutheast orientation of the main facade is common, but the direction of response must take precedence.

Size. Fire stations are sized to handle large vehicles. In architectural terms, they lack “human scale.” Nothing much can be done about the actual size, but there are ways to disguise the building’s bulk. Generally these involve the use of smaller-scale elements, multiple roof levels, and varied shapes and angles to break the large, visual mass into several smaller ones. This kind of design costs more money that a simple square box, but consider the long-term benefits in terms of firefighter and community satisfaction.

Roof. A pitched roof generally is used in residential construction, and a flat roof in industrial. Unfortunately, the size of a fire station usually means that a totally pitched roof will result in an unnecessarily large volume of space being enclosed, requiring more money to construct and maintain. Often a combination of flat and pitched roofs can be utilized for an efficient yet pleasing design.

Space organization. A maze of interconnecting box rooms may squeeze the most functions into a given area on paper. However, a clear, understandable, organized arrangement of rooms branching off of corridors and in groups along various axes is more efficient, pleasing, and comfortable to work in.


Once the above concerns have been addressed and a basic design arrived at, the next step in the process is design development —the design is considered in terms of the realities of construction. The architect must make sure that the building complies with various construction codes.

The principle code will be the local building code. In most areas this is modeled on a number of national codes developed by various organizations over the years. Such codes as BOCA and Uniform Building Code fall into this category. Other codes such as the New York State Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code have been developed directly by states themselves. Whatever their origin, these codes generally have the force of law and address certain basic concepts regarding fire safety, structural safety, and minimum space requirements in detail. In addition, most states have in force some type of energy conservation code that addresses requirements for insulation and thermal efficiency.

Building codes sometimes require special access routes into structures for the handicapped. The applicability of these codes to fire stations varies from area to area, but a fire station with large meeting areas will almost inevitably have to be accessible to the handicapped. A two-story building may be required to have an elevator.

There are a number of federal agencies whose codes also apply to fire stations. OSHA and EPA requirements, for example, are having more of an effect on the design of fire stations. There are certain specialty codes, such as the National Electrical Code, which also govern the construction of fire stations. All of these codes must be considered during the entire design process and even at this early stage they can require major compromises in the design. The following are some of the special code concerns in a fire station.

Explosion hazards. In the National Electrical Code, Article 511 covers electrical wiring in hazardous areas. Major jurisdictions consider the apparatus bays of the fire station a hazardous area since gasoline fumes can build up to such a level that an electrical spark can cause an explosion. This generally can be solved by special electrical fittings, by keeping all electrical equipment 24 inches or more above the floor, and by special ventilation systems. The extent to which a fire station is considered a hazardous area can vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Some areas interpret this code to mean that only the apparatus bays themselves are hazardous; other jurisdictions consider the entire fire station a hazardous situation.

Fume ventilation. The effects of exhaust gases and fumes on personnel when multiple pieces of apparatus are started in the apparatus bays have become a matter of concern in recent years. Special high-capacity ventilation systems that can be turned on at the time of vehicle startup are available. These can be rigged to turn on automatically when the bay doors are opened.

Hazardous wastes. Water runoff from apparatus returning from a fire contains hydrocarbons (because it is an oil-lubricated and gasolinepowered vehicle) as well as possible soot and chemical residue from the fire itself. In some areas this is considered hazardous waste and cannot be disposed of in sewers or leaching pools. It must be contained in a holding tank and disposed of according to strict regulations.

Fuel tanks. Currently codes governing fuel tank installations, whether for building heating or apparatus fuel, are becoming more and more conservative. Tanks and piping must be the double-wall type with leak detection systems. Such a tank installation can cost S 50,000 or more.


Next you must choose the type of construction. There are numerous ways to build a oneor two-story building the size of a fire station. Options include wood frame, steel frame, precast concrete frame, masonry, metal panels, and precast concrete panels. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, which will vary from site to site and from one area of the country to another. Your architect will be best able to make this selection for you based on needs.

Try to avoid constructing a cellar below the apparatus bays. Modern apparatus are very heavy and getting heavier. The structure to support them would be costly. Older stations (1920 to 1930 vintage) were often designed this way and now must have their floors reinforced.

This is the time to select heating, ventilating, and air conditioning or “HVAC” systems. You can choose from hot water systems, hot air systems, oil-fired, gas-fired, electrically fired, central air conditioning, local air conditioning, and more. Each has an impact on the cost of construction and the efficiency of the building. Generally gas or oil-fired hot water systems seem to provide the most flexible, comfortable, and responsive system for a fire station. However, they are more costly to install than many systems. Fuel and operating costs also vary from region to region.

Whatever system you select, keep it simple. A number of highly sophisticated HVAC systems have been developed that offer benefits in terms of efficiency and economy, but they require specially trained personnel to maintain—something most departments will not be able to guarantee.


Once the design has been developed and approved by your department, the architect will prepare the construction documents. These are the actual documents that the contractor uses to build the building. Construction documents usually consist of two basic parts —the drawings and specifications. They describe the construction, how the building is to be built, and with what materials. They in fact tell the contractor what his job is. They also form the basis for the legal contract between the owner and the contractor, and their wording becomes legally binding. Have your department’s lawyer review these documents carefully. In most areas, the drawings must be submitted to the local building department for review and approval before a building permit can be issued.

The drawings consist of numerous views of the building and its various parts, generally drawn to a convention known as orthographic or rightangle projection, the basis of all modern drafting. Included are floor plans showing the layout of the building, mechanical plans, electrical plans, elevations that are flat right-angle pictures of exterior and interior walls, roof plans, structural plans, foundation plans, site plans, schedules of doors and finishes, hardware schedules, cabinet work details, and window details.

A small addition to a firehouse may have as little as five or six drawings. A major new fire station can have 50 drawings or more. Generally, a team of between five and 15 people is required to prepare all the drawings for such a project. The time involved can range from one month to a year.

While the drawings describe the quantities and arrangements of the materials used in the building, the specifications, consisting of a written book, describe the quality of the materials to be used and the procedures to be used in their installation. Specifications today generally follow the Construction Specifications Institute format and are divided into a front end or “boiler plate” section and a technical section.

The boiler plate addresses the general conditions of the contract. Such areas as payment to the contractor, bid requirements, insurance requirements, bond requirements, security of the site, methods to be used in case of disagreement between the parties in the contract, requirements for temporary electrical service, temporary water service, temporary sanitary facilities, submissions that must be made by the contractor, and security requirements are described.

The technical portion of the specification is divided into 16 divisions, beginning with special project requirements and demolition and ending with the electrical systems. Each division is broken down into individual sections. For example, Division 9Finishes will have separate sections for painting, ceramic tile, acoustic tile, carpet, and wall covering. Each section is further broken down into general requirements (submissions, quality control, standards), materials to be used, and execution or installation. The specification for a large fire station can run 500 or 600 pages.

Once the construction documents are completed, they must be reproduced and prepared for bidding. In some instances of public bidding as many as 60 or 70 copies of the documents must be made and given to bidders. For a project with 40 drawings that is a total of 2,400 prints; and a 500-page specification involves 30,000 copied pages.

The next step in the construction process is asking for and receiving bids, which will be the focus of the next installment of this series.

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