Jim Mitchell

by Jim Mitchell

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

Fire Station Design In Response to COVID-19

  • JULY 02, 2020
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It is remarkable how much the design of fire stations over the past decade have been impacted in response to health issues and concerns. The fire station has long served as a community hub in which the public could visit and expect easy access to reach the front desk, seek information about fire and home safety concerns, or in emergency situations seek paramedic service. Often fire stations contain community rooms that serve dual functions, such as training rooms for the fire personnel during the day, and as community rooms for public meetings in the evenings.

Many recent changes to fire station design are because of growing knowledge and well-documented research showing the harmful effects of carcinogens that can be carried into the firehouse from smoke-contained fire-fighting equipment, clothing and apparatus. Design modifications such as providing a decontamination zone between the apparatus garage and the living quarters can provide the separation and the area for cleansing apparatus and personnel that is needed to protect firefighters. Showers, dedicated commercial washing and extractors are provided within this decontamination zone along with a change of clothes for personnel returning from a fire event to use before being allowed to pass into the living quarters of the fire station.

Now with the present day concern of the COVID-19 pandemic and other pathogens, this concern of health and protection of the firemen must take center stage and be considered in the design of modern day fire stations. While there are established operational precautions that have been issued, such as frequent handwashing, limiting exterior access to the fire station facility, cleansing and disinfection of all surfaces, there are important aspects in the physical layout and design of fire station facilities that can aid in combating COVID-19 and other pathogens. Fire stations have historically been regarded as a home away from home for the fire department personnel. Many of the functions found in a typical home have been duplicated, with a food preparation kitchen, dining area, day/living room and sleeping quarters and shower/restrooms provided for the units. With today’s pandemic concerns, these traditional spaces need to be reconsidered as follows:

Sleeping Quarters
The common dorm or bunk room has long been a staple of fire station design due to its economy in construction and allowance for simplified HVAC to control the space. These bunk rooms are typically separate from the individual officer’s sleeping quarters. With the need to create social distancing between firemen at rest, this most certainly will result in individual sleeping rooms being provided for each person equipped with their own HVAC and lighting control. There still remains the issue of three shifts occurring at the fire station that will result in sharing of the beds. Operationally, this will require that every mattress have a protective mattress cover that is removed and washed frequently. As far as the bedding, it should be removed after each shift and placed in plastic containers with a lid for each shift. Upon collection of these containers, a commercial washer and extractor dedicated to the bedding should be utilized.
Living Quarters / Dayroom
While the dayroom has always been the hub and considered important for camaraderie among the fire fighters, it is a room that is often crowded with lounge chairs placed in close proximity to one another. In addressing the dayroom in future fire station designs, as opposed to one large room for such purposes, the floor plan may very well evolve into a primary day room that is then supplemented with additional break out rooms scattered about in the fire station floor plan. This will offer the opportunity of creating greater social distance among the crew, and at the same time, provide for the possibility of creating specialized areas: a study room with a library, a room for casual conferences and meetings, or a room for respite and relaxation.
Restrooms / Showers / LockersWhen designing restrooms for both sexes, it is imperative that the layout of toilet facilities, sinks and showers are done to consider social separation and separate rooms. Individual toilet stalls provide added protection. In lieu of gang type showers, individual enclosed shower units should be considered. Lavatories should be spaced adequately apart to allow social distancing to be accomplished. As far as controls and devices within the restroom, touchless features for faucets at lavatories, automatic flush meters for water closets and urinals, drinking fountains with operators that do not require touching or grasping to activate, and paper towel dispenser and soap dispensers that do not require grabbing or touching to operate are all positive features to resist the spread of COVID-19.

Care should also be carried forward for the placement of clothing in lockers. To avoid cross-contamination, it is advisable that personal clothing worn from home be separated in a different locker compartment than the issued fire personnel outfits or uniforms that are to be worn at the fire station. At the end of the shift, the fire department issued uniforms can be washed within the washing machines and dryers on site, while the personal clothing from home is worn when going home and washed at the residence washing machine and dryers. 
Kitchen and Dining Areas
Similar to the concerns of the living area, the kitchen needs to be designed for ample space for food preparation. Adequate, separate and lockable storage for all three shifts should be provided, and a cleaning and disinfecting program set in place for the proper handling and storage of materials. This is extended to three separate refrigerators/freezers that are lockable. A commercial dishwasher is a must for cleaning of all plates, silverware and utensils after each prepared meal. Abundant outside air and exhaust should also be provided in this area.

The dining area is a space of special considerations. Historically, the shifts have all eaten together at one time. With social distancing concerns, special consideration should be given for the possibility of eating in shifts to allow for smaller numbers in the dining room. Break out supplemental dining areas could be located in the fire station as well where smaller groups may separate or gather. Another option to consider when designing individual bunk rooms is to provide a small countertop area within those rooms for those who may wish to return to their bunk room from the kitchen for individual dining. The small countertops can then be increased slightly in size to accommodate a laptop/desk where one could conduct research or view entertainment in lieu of using the dayroom.
Restricted Entry / Accessible First Aid Room
An important consideration in reducing the risk of exposure from the outside is to limit access to the fire station from the public. This is a reversal of thought in that fire stations have often been viewed as community-friendly facilities, but with today’s concerns of combating the spread of viruses and pathogens, this, unfortunately, must give way to secure supervision of all entry points into the station. Apparatus garage doors should be kept closed, and exterior doors need to be locked with card key access to the fire personnel. 

A central function of a fire station is to be able to provide first aid service to those who may walk in for emergency calls. This can be accomplished by the strategic location of a first aid room immediately off of the main public entrance, and separated from the living quarters and offices area of the fire station. This way, treatment can be accomplished with sterile and disinfectants utilized with proper disposal, handwashing and safety precautions taken to avoid passing harmful viruses into the heart of the fire station.

Enhanced Ventilation
Having ample and abundant fresh outside air introduced into the living quarters and offices of the fire station is of vital importance. While modern fire stations have for the most part been designed for the removal of harmful diesel fumes from the apparatus garage, as well as keeping the garage at a negative pressure to keep fumes from entering the living and office portion of the fire station, there has not been the same level of concern offered for good ventilation for the living quarters. Current studies have shown that mechanical ventilation systems with filtration when designed to eliminate indoor air pollution and other particles of .3 microns or greater when the building is occupied results in an effective approach to combating the spread of COVID-19. Since the building is occupied 24/7, this is a critical improvement for consideration.

Fire stations can be designed to effectively address the present day concerns of COVID-19 and other pathogens. It starts with good planning of the physical structure and then is supported by an effective operational program of cleaning and disinfecting. With these considerations applied to the design of a new fire station, there is an opportunity to provide a safe and lower health risk environment for those fire personnel who make the firehouse their home away from home.

Jim Mitchell

by Jim Mitchell

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

As a registered architect for over 27 years and a State of Ohio Certified Master Plans Examiner and Chief Building Official, Jim is a wealth of knowledge regarding building codes. His favorite place to eat is Polaris Grille, and his favorite movie is National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation.