A synergetic relationship between policy and design are extremely important in the layout of Fire Stations. The article will address this relationship and the effects on the long-term health of the firefighters that live and work there.
The Modern Era of Architecture was going to solve society’s problems. Obviously, architecture alone does not solve anything unless it is responsive to the needs and policies of the user. Architecture is in fact a tool that supports those policies of an organization to help safely and efficiently carry out their mission. Conversely, if the architecture is not responsive to the policies and standard procedures of an organization it adds unnecessary complications or even creates unsafe conditions in public service facilities, especially fire stations.
When considering the policies, and therefore design of a station, it should be assumed that the apparatus bay is a hot zone for contaminates that are brought back from an incident on the apparatus, to include equipment used, turnout gear and clothing worn at the scene. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) study released in 2010 indicated that exposure to these contaminates are linked to the prevalence of cancer and cancer related illness that are 9% higher in the firefighting community compared to the public as a whole. Many resources are available to guide policy makers on best practices regarding containment.
Containment of these contaminates starts at the incident scene.
What happens as the fire fighters return to the station? All too often various support functions such as restrooms, access to changing rooms and clothes, turnout gear cleaning, and storage happen on a path either crossing or deep into the station personnel traffic patterns. This traffic flow within the quarters allows the opportunity for contamination to be introduced into the living and sleeping rooms of the station.
First, a transition between the red zone (contaminated) and green zone (non-contaminated) should exist. Direct access into the apparatus bays from sleeping quarters is all too common in past station design. This approach was encouraged to reduce turnout time and overall response time.
In a recent commission, the authors of this article collaborated to address this very condition in an existing facility designed and remodeled in the 70’s and 90’s respectively. In its original configuration, this facility serves as both a neighborhood response station (structural) and as an airport response station (AARF). There were two separate apparatus bays, one containing an engine company and one containing AARF response apparatus. These bays were book ends on either side of the quarters. The sleeping quarters, in what can only be described as a high-density barracks configuration, opened directly into the bays on either side without even a hallway connecting them as a transition element. Great for response times, not so good for containment of contaminates.
The sleeping quarters themselves were a non-starter in terms of recruitment and retention of the next generation of firefighter candidates. Today’s firefighter is looking for a higher level of privacy and sanitary facilities that are also private. The problem with providing a safe contaminate free zone was compromised due to the red (apparatus bays) and green (sleeping quarters) zones being directly connected. A direct path of cross contamination was possible in the existing facility design. The facility utilized a portion of existing space within the AARF apparatus bay for the exercise/workout space, where deep breathing, because of the workout process and potentially contaminated equipment, took place in the same unseparated environment.
Under the constraints of a tight budget, the design team (comprised of the primary user group and architect) worked to address the following: prioritize the desired separations, meet the expectations of privacy for the today’s firefighters, provide a tremendous advancement on the separation of red and green zones through transitional (yellow) zones, and avoid compromising response times. See illustrations one and two which indicate existing before and proposed after relationships of these spaces. The station is currently under construction for this remodeling. Due to a limited budget and other pre-existing conditions of the station, not every aspect of today’s policies could be implemented. However, an exercise workout area was provided outside the apparatus bay (out of the red zone and into the yellow zone) and personal laundry was pulled back into the green zone.
Some additional considerations for the design team on all projects, new or remodeled, include the following:
- The contamination of turnout gear is a big concern. Provide turnout gear racks within an enclosed exhausted space with single pass air. The off gassing that occurs from the gear should be addressed and not allowed to “mix” with the ventilation air of either the apparatus bay or the quarters.
Other policies concerning the handling of gear are to provide a redundant set of gear to allow a rotation while the gear is cleaned and decontaminated. Obviously, this has financial implications for the department, and spatial and separation considerations for the design team to provide the necessary hang space.
- It is important to have proper separation of functions between gear cleaning/extraction and personal laundry. The two do not belong together. However, the temptation is there to combine because of the savings of grouped plumbing during the design/budget process. Cleaning of the gear belongs in a red zone while the personal laundry is much better served within the green zone or at least a yellow zone.
- Cleaning and drying of SCBA equipment are necessary to reduce cross contamination of the apparatus and gear. Again, the design team needs to address the special needs and cleanability of SCBA service areas to allow policies to be implemented.
- Providing a changing room or locker room for the firefighters to shower and change without bringing contaminates that may be present after an incident should be considered. These yellow zone spaces should be directly accessible to the red zones and should consider a pass through to a green zone, or at a minimum into a continuation of the yellow zones to help control the migration of contaminates into the station quarters.
- Consideration of finishes and their cleanability is important. Red zones should readily facilitate cleaning, flushing and immediate decontamination. Sealed concrete, concrete block and other durable materials are commonly used and importantly necessary.
Yellow zones are sometimes the areas where inappropriate finishes are utilized. To “warm-up” the metaphysical feel of the station, textiles (carpets) and other materials are used to make these areas less institutional and more livable. Taking cues from a medical design approach, durable, yet cleanable finishes are applied every day in the design of these facilities. Materials such as wood grain vinyl flooring and laminates are just a couple options that are very cleanable yet lend a more comfortable “feel”.
Finally, green zone areas, while being properly segregated from the red zones, still will have that human element that inadvertently brings station clothes and footwear into the private quarters and sleeping areas. This can be handled through policy and protocol; however, the built environment can help. Some ideas may include footwear trays that can be cleaned on a serviceable schedule, clothes drops separate from the wardrobe areas, or designated cubbies for soiled clothing that are designed and utilized to manage that last interface with possible contaminates.
These are just a beginning of thoughts to make the work environment safer for firefighters and move in a direction to reduce the trend for long-term health concerns. All aspects of the daily routine of the firefighter should be reviewed and examined to understand where these exposures can occur. We then can develop appropriate policies and procedures and together with thoughtful design, reduce them, or eliminate them completely wherever possible to reverse the startling health trends that are becoming the norm.
For more information, go to www.eapc.net
Alan Dostert, AIA