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Perspectives in Design | Fire and EMS Station Design: Making Accommodations for First Responders in a Pandemic

Perspectives in Design | Fire and EMS Station Design: Making Accommodations for First Responders in a Pandemic
May 22, 2020

by Paul Andrew Sgroi, Principal, AIA, LEED AP

Heroism in the fire and life safety industry is not uncommon. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, we are reminded of the tremendous sacrifices these men and women endure in order to protect and serve. Now, two months into the outbreak in the U.S., industries are looking to adapt to the new realities this public health crisis has created. As designers, we must consider the effects these new realities will have on the fire station in a post-Covid world.

In 2014, the concept of Hot Zone design for fire stations was presented to the design industry with a fiery impact. Firefighters and others on the scene were returning to their vehicles, stations, and homes cloaked with an invisible carcinogenic blanket. Hot Zone design focused our attention on the need to separate contaminated zones from clean zones. The introduction of transition zones was one design solution that provided sensible means to separate the apparatus bay entry and exit points from the “living” areas common to fire and EMS stations.

Bernardon recently completed the design of the Broomall Fire Company in Broomall, Pennsylvania. Care was taken to separate hot zones from clean zones with great success. “The separation between the operations side and the administration side is a real positive,” said Jim Capuzzi, President of Broomall Fire Company. However, the invisible threat of the coronavirus is now impacting those clean zones we so diligently isolated. Day rooms and common kitchen space intended to be used by active members of the company are now more vulnerable to hosting viral contagions than cancer-causing carcinogens. Yet these spaces are vital to maintaining on-site presence of the career staff and volunteers.

Creating healthy indoor environments improves the readiness and response of a Company by enhancing comfort, encouraging interaction, and reinforcing fellowship. These design attributes invite the volunteers and staff to be active and present, thus being readily available to respond to a variety of calls. How will these courageous men and women remain engaged and inspired to contribute so greatly with the anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic impacting family, work, and social life?

We suggest Companies should start by building the confidence of the Company itself. A plan needs to be created to prioritize the interaction and activity that is most critical to the delivery of emergency services during fire and non-fire emergencies. Additionally, public engagement at the station should be terminated until such time that we are clear of contagion. This move is to control the unpredictable culture within the station and provides more confidence to the men and women responsible for maintaining its health and cleanliness in accordance with the CDC Guidance for Firefighters and EMS and other workplace guidelines.

Do the social distancing restrictions translate into the removal of social spaces that foster mission and good spirit? Should the elimination of training and conference spaces within these community amenities be considered in station design? The answer to both is: absolutely not.  Accommodations for multi-use space in station design can contribute significantly to maintaining a core group of career staff and volunteers in hunker-down situations like the one we are currently facing. These spaces are the heart and soul of the company at times when we are not plagued by, well, the plague. With the stay-at-home requirements that have altered our business life, fire and EMS companies should consider the transitional use of training rooms, banquet halls, and other under-utilized social spaces to permit its members to be present on site with all of the amenities of a home office. These co-work spaces would allow some members to conduct business with the much-desired benefit of being emergency responsive.

As President of Broomall Fire Station, Jim Capuzzi notes there is a concern about not having fire and EMS personnel showing up at the station, and there is always that lingering concern that a temporary withdraw from actively participating at the station can become a future habit. However, he also pointed out that several high school and college students who complete their daily studies are arriving at the station to be present and social while respecting the social distancing protocols set up at the station. Activity in the fitness room — under social distancing protocols —  has also increased since all public fitness facilities have been shuttered.

Tremendous attention needs to be given to the creation of healthy indoor environments that improve comfort, encourage participation, and reinforce fellowship within Fire and EMS stations. This attention is critical to the life of a company and the health of their surrounding community. Safely maintaining the presence of these brave men and women on site by improving accommodations and amenities will improve their response to our communities at times when we are most desperately in need of these heroes.

Explore the Broomall Fire Company here.

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