Jim Mitchell

by Jim Mitchell

Principal, Executive Vice President, Director - Civic/Community Studio

Combating Cancer Concerns with Fire Station Design

  • NOVEMBER 16, 2017
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Here at M+A Architects we’ve been designing fire stations for nearly four decades. And throughout that time of planning and design work in this specialized niche, we’ve seen priorities and perspectives evolve in some pretty important ways.

For a long time, fire station designs focused almost exclusively on the element of time: specifically, saving time, particularly in those moments where it matters most—when firefighters are moving quickly to respond to an alarm. From the living quarters to apparatus and equipment storage, our goal as architects has been to create spaces and features that would allow firefighters to get their gear and get to their vehicles quickly and efficiently.

That all began to change in the mid-2000s, however, as detailed information about increased cancer rates in firefighters began to raise serious concerns. A great deal of credit belongs to the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN), an organization that has done incredible work to conduct research, raise awareness, and develop best practices and protective measures that firefighters can take to protect themselves from excessive exposure to carcinogens. The FCSN’s work has highlighted the sobering fact that firefighter cancer rates are 1.5 to 2 times higher than the general population.

As architects, we’ve long been cognizant of the issue of diesel fumes in such close proximity to living quarters, and have long designed fire station garages to operate at a negative pressure, while maintaining positive air pressure in the living quarters to minimize cross-contamination. The latest research, however, indicates that firefighter exposure to toxic and carcinogenic substances is far more extensive than previously recognized. Firefighters not only inhale a host of chemicals and carcinogens at the site of a fire, but are at risk of additional exposure through dermal absorption (through the skin) when those substances are brought back to the fire station.

The FCSN has issued operational guidance about how to decontaminate equipment, and their suggestions about facility layout and safety have helped inspire a new generation of fire station designs. Today, our newest fire station designs feature dedicated decontamination zones, where vehicles returning to the station can be sequestered, firefighters can disembark, immediately remove their equipment and soiled clothes/equipment for cleaning, and then shower—all before entering the living environment.

The FCSN has recommended that a number of health-and-safety-oriented design features should be standard, including state-of-the-art equipment and systems for sufficient air flow, and for the removal and capture of carcinogens and particulates; dedicated (and appropriately ventilated) spaces for the removal, cleaning and storage of contaminated clothing and equipment (including a washer-extractor and gear-drying equipment); and a clear separation of living quarters from the garage/apparatus floor. M+A architects have already begun working these spaces into our fire station designs.

Relatively new developments in the industry, these design principles are just now starting to become brick-and-mortar reality. In fact, recently serving in the capacity of Criteria Architect for the conceptual design for a new fire station for Clinton Township, in Franklin County, Ohio, we incorporated a decontamination zone that provides an isolated separation zone for personal protective equipment washing and cleaning, as well as showers and change of clothing, prior to entrance into the living quarters of the firehouse. Given the importance of this issue, and the growing awareness of firefighter cancer risks, it’s not surprising that we are starting to see these issues pop up as priorities in design discussions. I fully expect that the vast majority (if not all) new fire stations that are designed and built going forward will address these issues, and that a large number of existing stations will start looking to renovate their existing spaces to make their facilities safer for their firefighters.

In an influential August 2013 report entitled Taking Action Against Cancer in the Fire Service, the FCSN concluded with the following statement: “Responsible elected and appointed officials should require this type of [specialized design] expertise when hiring design professionals for fire stations.” And I couldn’t agree more. At M+A, we firmly believe that one of the best ways to honor our first responders and show our respect and gratitude for the risks they run and the critical work that they do is to make sure that the places they live and work are not making them sick. It’s not only our obligation as architects and as an organization, but as a society–and it’s work we are very proud to do.

Jim Mitchell

by Jim Mitchell

Principal, Executive Vice President, Director - Civic/Community Studio

Jim has been with M+A since 1981 and currently serves as the executive vice president of the company. Jim's favorite place to eat is Polaris Grille, and his favorite movie is National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.