Fire Chief Digital Edition
By Robert Avsec, FireRescue1 Columnist
Looking back over the history of the fire service, particularly in the United States, the fire station has been a vital core structure in many cities and towns. Fire stations in many communities serve as a social hub as well as a critical public safety service.
Over the years, as the population grew and more people and businesses moved out of large cities to suburban and rural areas, many traditional community cores declined. Residential housing developed in and around large-scale retail shopping complexes in the suburbs.
Many of the new fire stations built during this migration in the early 1970s were located away from those new population centers for three main reasons.
First, prime real estate for new fire stations quickly became unaffordable for local governments or volunteer fire departments competing with commercial and residential real estate developers.
Second, many residents adopted a “not in my backyard” attitude because they didn’t want the noise and traffic they associated with a fire station disrupting their quiet suburban neighborhoods.
Third, there were new planning models used by local governments and fire departments. Many computer-based models identified the best location for a new fire station based on forecasted service delivery needs and placed sites for many new fire stations ahead of anticipated community growth.
‘New Urbanism’ and Community Planning
One of the newer developments in urban planning is neotraditional planning, also known as new urbanism or traditional neighborhood development. It’s a form of planning employed by local governments looking to revitalize their cities to bring people back to urban areas, especially young people.
It’s based on the supposition that people would rather walk, bike or use mass transit than drive. Community leaders assume that if cities and towns were better designed – with housing, shopping and restaurants more closely grouped together – people would not need to rely so much on their automobiles.
Neotraditional design can not only affect the design of a new station, but also the size of fire apparatus that would be housed in the new station.
When designing and building a new fire station, going green is another area for strong consideration. The Charlottesville, Virginia, Deltona, Florida, and Madison, Wisconsin, fire departments have opened new fire stations in recent years that maximize the use of energy-saving technologies. These newer fire stations provide a reduced carbon footprint in the community, greater operating efficiency and reduced operating costs for the respective departments. For the Charlottesville Fire Department, the decision to go green was easy: All new city buildings in Charlottesville must be built to conform to the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification requirements.
The city of Madison also has a goal of attaining a minimum LEED Silver rating or equivalent for all city projects.
In Deltona, the city and the department pursued available grant funding for energy-efficient designs in public buildings. In the end, the fire department not only got the energy efficiencies, it also got a lower electric bill.
Know Your Community
When beginning the planning process for a new fire station, fire service leaders should ensure that they are informed about the community development planning process, which will provide a better understand of where a new fire station fits into overall planning, what type of station best meets the community’s needs and how to best integrate into planned development. It can also provide potential funding opportunities for construction.
Make Your Case
Many a fire chief has recognized too late in the planning process that their community was not willing to pay for a new fire station. In many cases, citizens fail to provide their support in the voting booth to approve a bond referendum.
The members of your community are more likely to give your department that support if they truly understand three things.
- What your department is doing for them daily.
- Why your current facility is not meeting your operational needs to deliver those services to the community.
- How a new facility will address any deficiencies in service delivery.
The time to engage in addressing the first item is now. Even if you’re not currently planning on building a new station, you can be more successful when you do by creating an educated and supportive community.
Four Planning Strategies
For fire departments funded by local government, as well as volunteer departments funded by donations, getting the most for your design and construction dollars is an important goal. Here are four strategies.
- Collaborate with other agencies or departments in your community.
Fire departments have partnered with their law enforcement and EMS colleagues to create structures that help everyone to be more effective and efficient in their service delivery to a common public; it also helps build productive working relationships.
- Collaborate with other community groups.
Don’t limit your scope to public safety agencies. How about a partnership with your local health department to provide space for a community health clinic? Maybe even have a satellite office for local government where residents can go to conduct business like pay tax bills, obtain licenses and register real estate.
- Collaborate to create a training facility within a fire station.
Whether it’s required training for a local government’s workforce or community action groups doing outreach training, most communities don’t have enough facilities. And what fire department couldn’t use a larger and better equipped facility for the training and education of its people?
- Collaborate with a neighboring fire department.
Expand your scope in another direction and look at how your department and a neighboring department might get together to design and build a fire station near your common border. With the right location, that fire station could be jointly staffed and operated to better serve both communities.
The fire station remains a vital component in every community. The nature of many communities, however, has been evolving and continues to undergo major changes. Successful fire station planning requires that leaders understand and anticipate those changes to best meet the needs of the community. And a fire station that best serves the community is more likely to be one that best serves firefighters.
About the author
Batt. Chief Robert Avsec (Ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Va.) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS, and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy's EFO Program. Contact Robert at Robert.Avsec@FireRescue1.com.