The role of the firefighter has evolved over the years and crews now are called on more for medic calls than fires. The traditional firehouse has evolved less. So why not develop a firehouse that acts as more than just that, but as a hub for emergency response and recovery?
That’s what members of an architecture firm, along with a fire department, have been working on since the onset of the coronavirus in late March.
The “agile fire station” would mitigate the onset of pathogens, like COVID-19, with advanced HVAC systems, decontamination and isolation rooms, as well as address social distancing and serve the community by providing surge capacity for mass vaccinations or other uses. The spaces could be used during other disasters, including natural hazards and civil unrest.
“We designed a full-blown, ideal fire station that incorporated [FEMA criteria for critical infrastructure] criteria into the design,” said Barbara Price, special projects director with the architecture firm McMillan Pazdan Smith. “And our big idea is that we want to create an agile fire station where we can ‘flip’ spaces to resist a threat.”
The design was aided by the guidance of firefighters, including Dr. Kevin Milan, assistant fire chief at South Metro Fire Rescue in Denver, who has a doctorate in Fire and Emergency ManagementAdministration from Oklahoma State University.
Many of the designs can be added on to existing fire stations, and Milan said a brand-new ideal fire station could be done within a year. “Many of the existing stations already have the basic elements and could be adapted very quickly,” he said.
Milan saw his department go through many iterations of mitigating fallout from the virus since the beginning of the pandemic, including having to transport fire units to the hospital for decontamination and having to house some fire personnel in local hotels to limit exposure to others. His department has had 30 firefighters test positive and two hospitalized.
The agile or ideal fire station would include a place for decontamination and areas for quarantine, as well as “recharge space” for personnel to rest for mental health purposes.
“If we could create a space within the bay where we could flip the HVAC system and create negative pressure, as well as either an air curtain or operable wall to contain those pathogens, they could bring the medic units in and cleanse them there,” Price said. “And then they can more quickly get back into service.”
Price said she learned in developing such units for hospitals that it was crucial for doctors and nurses to have places to recharge, and the same is true for firefighters. “We’ve got evidence from PTSD patients that those kinds of spaces will improve mental health, and we know that mental health and physical health are connected,” she said.
In designing the ideal firehouse, the architects looked at FEMA guidelines for critical infrastructure that were established after 9/11. “We took those elements and distilled those into building systems and building spaces that could respond to and support planning for disaster scenarios,” Price said.
It is also hoped that following the FEMA critical infrastructure guidelines will enable fire departments to obtain federal grant funding for such improvements.
The architecture team also designed atool for fire departments to assess their needs when it comes to mitigating pathogens and other hazards to determine what might be the most useful additions to existing fire stations.
Some of the areas in fire stations that could use improvement:
• Space planning: While it used to be enough to ensure harmful carcinogens did not make it into firehouse living spaces, those protections are no longer enough to stop something like COVID-19. Design considerations for spaces within the firehouse require more acute attention to detailed zoning related to the adjacencies and isolation of various areas where likely cases of infection or contaminants arise, while also keeping in mind best practices for social distancing.
• Material selection/sanitation: Building material selection now includes the options and use of naturally antibacterial and antimicrobial surfaces and high-touch building components. A cleaning regimen with antimicrobial agents is critical and should be developed as a part of the ongoing operations of the station.
• HVAC: COVID-19 has highlighted a growing need to better control the ventilation and filtration in all buildings, including fire stations. Changes can be made within HVAC systems to capture smaller particles and clean the air using ultraviolet light or electrostatic filtration. Attention should also be paid to maintaining adequate humidity in the station, as low humidity has been shown to increase the severity of exposure to viruses, including COVID-19.
• Mental health: Our immune systems are affected negatively by stress. Designing fire stations around COVID-19 should include elements that protect the mental health of firefighters. This includes proper lighting that supports their natural circadian rhythms, as well as spaces that are designed for safe interaction to ease anxieties around exposure.