Designing Fire Stations for Firefighter Health: A Comprehensive Approach

April 29, 2024 • Stan Landwehr, AIA

In the realm of firefighting, bravery often takes center stage. Firefighters confront perilous situations daily, risking their lives to protect communities. However, amidst the valor lies a silent threat—exposure to carcinogens.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify firefighters as having a 14% higher risk of dying from cancer than the general population, and states unequivocally, “Cancer is the most dangerous threat to firefighter health and safety today.”

In 2018, a joint report from the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) and the International Fire Service Training Association (IFSTA) urged a reevaluation of fire station design to prioritize firefighter health.

Firemen Gear1

The Lurking Danger

Fire and EMS personnel face continuous exposure to carcinogens at the scene of fires, coupled with the lingering presence of particulates like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers, and polychlorinated biphenyls which cling to their personal protective equipment (PPE) when they return to the station. PPE stored in the apparatus bay further accumulates carcinogens from diesel exhaust.

This toxic environment contributes to the staggering rates of cancer among firefighters.

 

A Call for Change in Design Philosophy

“When designing a new fire station, architects need to create dedicated areas for decontamination to reduce the toxic exposures that lead to cancer,” states Stan Landwehr, Principal at WDM.

To combat these health hazards, fire station design must undergo a paradigm shift. Architects play a pivotal role in this transformation. The selection of architects with expertise in fire and emergency facilities design is paramount. These professionals orchestrate the design process, integrating state-of-the-art equipment and systems to:

  1. Ensure adequate airflow
  2. Remove carcinogens
  3. Segregate contaminated areas from living quarters.

 

In the above diagram, red areas of aparatus bays have carcinogenic diesel exhaust fumes and lingering particulates from firefighting. Yellow areas are designated decontamination areas. Green areas are clean areas for offices, kitchen, and bedrooms.

Designing for Health: Key Considerations

Zoning for Containment

Implementing a zoning system within fire stations segregates contaminated areas (red zones) from clean zones (green), minimizing cross-contamination.

Decontamination Facilities

Designing stations with dedicated decontamination areas equipped with specialized equipment facilitates proper cleaning and disinfection of contaminated gear.

PPE Maintenance

Incorporating spaces for cleaning, drying, repairing, and storing personal protective equipment (PPE) ensures the longevity and efficacy of gear while minimizing exposure to carcinogens.

Respiratory Protection Rooms

Providing dedicated spaces for inspecting, testing, and repairing self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) mitigates risks associated with diesel exhaust inhalation.

Fitness Rooms

Including fitness facilities within stations promotes the physical well-being of firefighters, reducing the incidence of injuries and illnesses.

Embracing Change: A Collective Responsibility

Addressing the health hazards in fire stations requires a concerted effort. Fire departments must collaborate closely with architects, engineers, and other stakeholders to prioritize firefighter health in station design. Adopting standardized protocols, such as those outlined in NFPA standards, ensures uniformity and adherence to best practices.

As the firefighting landscape evolves, so must fire station design. Prioritizing firefighter health is not just a moral imperative; it’s a strategic necessity. By integrating preventive measures and state-of-the-art facilities, fire stations can become sanctuaries of safety, safeguarding the well-being of those who selflessly protect our communities. As stakeholders unite in this endeavor, we pave the way for a healthier and safer future for our firefighting heroes.