5 ways to integrate firefighter wellness into station design
Thoughtful station design can help firefighters find stress relief and a greater sense of well-being
By Eric Becker
From elevated levels of stress and higher rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to sleep deprivation and extended periods of isolation from loved ones, the unique risks and rigors firefighters face in their jobs are well-documented. As a former volunteer firefighter myself for the Timberline Fire Protection District in Colorado, I have experienced some of these first-hand.
Likewise, as an architectural designer and project manager who designs fire stations, not only am I familiar with the evidence suggesting that a thoughtful approach to architectural design can play an important role in relieving workplace stress and promoting mental and emotional well-being, I can personally attest to how effective certain fire station design and architectural strategies can be in helping firefighters to better cope with the stress and demands of their job.
Connecting station design with firefighter health
PTSD is as big a problem for firefighters as it is for combat veterans, research has found. Not only that, according to a recent study, the rate of suicide among firefighters was more than 10 times that of the general population.
Feelings of isolation from family are another all-too-familiar stressor for firefighters, who, when they’re not out on calls, can spend long hours at the fire station. The station isn’t just their workplace, it’s their home away from home. Only relatively recently, however, have communities, fire districts and architects begun to recognize the positive role a fire station’s indoor and outdoor spaces, and the elements within those spaces, can play in the mental and emotional well-being of the firefighters who work and reside there.
For firefighters, the fire station environment is indeed more than just a neutral backdrop to pass the time between calls. In fact, thoughtful design promotes emotionally supportive, stress-relieving connections on multiple levels – socially, with nature and with the surrounding neighborhood/community. There are ways to thoughtfully select, coordinate and incorporate these connections, even within strict fiscal constraints.
With this in mind, here are five design approaches that deliver the most impact for the financial investment:
1. Living room-style gathering spaces: New fire station designs are intentionally incorporating a private living room-style gathering space, separate from the work environment, for firefighters to congregate socially or to spend private time with loved ones if on extended duty. The new South Metro Fire Station No. 32 in Centennial, Colorado, has an area like this on the second floor that’s casually furnished so it feels more like home. Ultimately, the goal is to give firefighters a place to spend private time with loved ones to relieve the stress of separation, or to discretely address a family issue, emergency or crisis face-to-face.
2. Nature-inclusive design: Humans have an innate need to connect with nature. Biophilic design, where built environments incorporate aspects of the natural world, creates such a connection, and in doing so, gives people a stronger sense of well-being. About nine in ten workers in workplaces with biophilic elements reported improved well-being after those elements were incorporated into their surroundings, one study found.
Communities and architects have begun to incorporate subtle but important biophilic elements into fire station design. For example, indoor spaces at Northfield Fire Station No. 39 in Denver features earth-tone colors and a controlled soft lighting system, complemented by abundant but gentle natural light via strategically placed frosted glass and a skylight “spine” above the living area. Other communities are taking a similar approach, with the mental and emotional well-being of their firefighters in mind.
More of today’s new generation of fire stations also are incorporating special lighting systems that include blackout light mitigation features, along with noise and lighting controls, so sleeping firefighters are less apt to be disturbed.
3. Indoor-outdoor spaces: South Metro Fire’s new Station No. 31 provides indoor-outdoor spaces to help firefighters connect with nature and the community on their terms. A recessed patio near the station’s street frontage allows them to interact among themselves and (at their discretion) with neighbors and passersby, while still providing the privacy and protection that first responders need in an era of heightened safety concerns. An outdoor element such as a protected patio recognizes and fosters the important connection between firefighters and their community.
4. Centralized location: Another way to build that connection is by locating stations centrally within a community. Centralized locations help form a bond between firefighters and the people they serve without compromising emergency response times to the highest call areas.
5. Varied space types: Designing for the mental and emotional well-being of firefighters also means recognizing they need varied spaces that cater to differing moods, mindsets and personality types. Today’s new fire station designs honor personal needs and preferences by providing separate spaces for alone time, and for socializing in small groups and in larger groups. On a given day, some firefighters might crave group socialization to de-escalate following a stressful call, while others might prefer alone time before reconnecting with the group. Having varied types of spaces within the fire station addresses that spectrum of needs.
Working toward a common goal – firefighter health
With the design tools, expertise and resources that communities, fire districts and architectural firms bring to the table, we can collectively look out for our firefighters by working together to provide them with work environments that promote their mental and emotional well-being while offering much-needed respite and stress relief, without straining the budget. The benefits of doing so, for the community as well as for the firefighters themselves and their families, are just too compelling to ignore.
About the author
Eric Becker, an architectural designer at OZ Architecture in Denver, has 26 years of experience in design, project management and the application of sustainable concepts. Becker spent more than 10 years as a volunteer firefighter, which helped drive his compassion and understanding for firefighter needs and expectations of their station.