Fire station projects juggle vital demands, high tech and tight budgets
In the middle of a cold, January night, workers executed a systems cutover that was crucial to the success of an occupied renovation and to public safety.
Lead by North Point Builders, the project team was conducting a massive renovation of the Aberdeen Fire Station. The station’s seven equipment bays were slated to remain in place while crews demolished the rest of the structure and replaced it with a modern, 30,000-square-foot building.
Although the fire department was able to relocate most operations during the project, fire trucks and other apparatus remained onsite, requiring firefighters to move vehicles in and out of the bays each day and construction crews to organize their work around the equipment. An EMS crew remained active onsite as did the county’s Emergency Communication Wiring System. To provide uninterrupted emergency communications during the project, crews built a mezzanine in the truck bay, ran new electrical service and emergency generator power to the location and, in the middle of the night, moved the communications system from the old building to the mezzanine and quickly rebooted it.
Construction projects at fire stations require designers, engineers and builders to meet high and vital standards. Whether a station is being renovated, replaced or consolidated with another department, facilities must continue to support uninterrupted, life-saving services. Stations require hefty, specialized building systems and construction requirements and technology options keep evolving. Construction budgets, especially among volunteer fire companies, often fall short. And increasingly, facilities need to serve multiple, disparate goals, such as providing advanced training, disaster shelters, more attractive work environments for first responders, ample space for community events and preservation space for historic firefighting items.
The first challenge for any project team is working through a long and complex planning process which varies depending on whether the new station will serve a professional fire company, a volunteer company or a hybrid.
“In Howard County, the Elkridge station was made up of both,” said Ken Wingate, President of North Point Builders, which has completed more than 50 fire station projects. “That gets to be very complex in the decision-making process. You are working with two separate organizations that do not always have the same conclusion.”
Volunteer companies often spend eight to 10 years planning and fundraising for a new station before work ever begins.
“Many ground breakings are the culmination of years of work,” Wingate said. “When we start work, they want to know why we are not done because in their minds, they have constructed the project 14 times already.”
Faced with major facilities requirements and escalating prices, many fire station projects encounter budget shortfalls. After Baltimore County decided to merge the Arcadia and Boring fire stations into a modern, 20,000-square-foot facility in Upperco, the initial round of hard bids for construction all came in over budget.
To find a path forward, “Lewis Contractors proposed flipping the project to an open-book, construction manager at risk approach,” said Tyler Tate, President. “Then we conducted value engineering to get the price down.”
That approach produced remarkable results. Value engineering lowered the price of the roofing system, mechanical systems and interior and exterior finishes. Meanwhile, the open-book approach inspired several trade contractors “to make very generous offers” because they knew the savings would be passed directly onto the client, Tate said.
Together, those efforts saved more than 10 percent on the total price of the project.
“It really helped us deliver a building that pleased everyone,” said Courtney DeVeau, Project Manager at Lewis Contractors. “It even allowed us to add several items back into the project that initially were value engineered out.” Those included a patio behind the station where first responders could relax and a memorial in front of the station that showcased the historic fire bells from the Arcadia and Boring stations.
Meeting project budgets is made more challenging by the breadth of needs most fire stations must satisfy. Many, like Elkridge, serve as community gathering spaces and include large, multi-purpose rooms and commercial kitchens. Most are built to Level 1 construction standards in order to withstand hurricanes and potentially provide emergency shelter, power and communications.
To address the safety needs of growing populations and the ongoing professional development needs of first responders, many stations include training facilities. The redeveloped Aberdeen station added a four-story training tower adjacent to the truck bays. Growing needs to provide a more attractive and safer environment for first responders (especially since the beginning of the pandemic) has prompted stations to replace traditional bunkrooms with more spacious sleeping quarters that provide privacy and better air quality.
“On every job now, everyone looks at the bunk area and at ways to enhance ventilation or air cleaning, including airflow patterns and advanced technologies such as UV systems which kill viruses,” said Michael Purtell, Senior Vice President of Gipe Associates.
New regulations are further lowering health risks within fire stations. Building standards now require stations to include “a new type of washing machine, called an extractor,” that better cleans firefighters’ protective gear without damaging its fire-retardant properties, Purtell said. “Along with that change in the code, fire stations now have to be designed so that you can walk directly from outside the station into the decontamination area and take off or drop your gear. That prevents contaminants, which aren’t always visible because they can be microscopic particles or chemicals or smoke residue, from getting into the interior air. New record-keeping requirements also help fire companies track each piece of gear and when it was cleaned so that nobody puts on dirty gear by accident.”
Fire stations are also adopting new technologies to contain exhaust in the truck bays.
“Clients are now asking for a source capture system,” Purtell said. “That is a hose that sits on the tailpipe of a vehicle. As soon as the vehicle is started up, it exhausts those emissions to the outside so those contaminants never get into the fire station air. The systems have a magnetic release so they automatically detach when the vehicle starts to move.”
In addition to increasing the cost of fire station projects, those technology and regulated changes present project teams with additional challenges, including how to redesign space, install additional water and electrical service for extractors, and modify heating/cooling systems and fresh air supplies to support source capture systems.