The case for space: Many firefighters want more privacy at the station
Firefighters can still achieve crew camaraderie without communal space living situations
In January 1995, an arsonist broke into a CAL FIRE station in Northern California and burned it to the ground. The separate apparatus building was not damaged. The station was used for seasonal crews and was not occupied at the time.
When fire season started later that spring, a four-bedroom double-wide trailer was brought in to house the crews of three firefighters and one captain until plans could be made to rebuild the station.
The station that had burned was built in the 1930s with a traditional single common dorm. Now individual crewmembers suddenly had their own private sleeping spaces in the station. And they liked the change.
When plans were finally drawn up to replace the station, the crews lobbied hard to include private sleeping rooms in the design. But those in higher positions insisted that a common dorm was necessary.
The union got involved, and the issue was ultimately taken to elected officials. In the end, the station crews prevailed, and the design was changed to include individual sleeping rooms. From that point forward, all new CAL FIRE stations have been designed to include separate sleeping spaces.
The argument made at the time of the dispute was that fire crews included both men and women, meaning some privacy was needed in station design. But the underlying motivation went deeper. It wasn’t just about providing privacy between the sexes. Everyone liked having some personal space in the fire station.
When fire service leaders talk about station design, they frequently refer to the need to provide some gender separation in the station. Certainly men and women should have separate toilet, shower and changing areas in fire stations, as they do in all other public buildings. But sleeping quarters are a bit different. My experience is that the desire for private sleeping space is as much about age as it is about sex.
When I became a firefighter in my mid-20s, I had already spent years as a backcountry ranger, frequently sharing cabins and tents with both male and female coworkers. Moving into a common dorm with my fellow firefighters was no big deal for me, and I never had a negative experience on account of my sex from the shared arrangement.
Age was what changed my attitude about common dorms. As I got older and slept less soundly, the dorm situation increasingly wore on me. In the old days, I could go on a call and fall back asleep immediately upon return to the station. As I advanced in rank and age, that was no longer possible. All the normal dorm sounds (snoring, coughing, sleep-talking, the occasional nightmare) and smells made sleep nearly impossible at times.
A couple of my department’s stations had separate sleeping rooms, and many of the older firefighters tried hard to get assignments to these stations. But it wasn’t just because of sleep that they wanted those slots. Having a little privacy was also very desirable to many on the job.
Firefighters are usually together for 24 or 48 hours at a time. This can be a bit much, even among compatible crews. It is nice to have a quiet, private space to make a personal phone call, read a book, meditate or pray.
The desire for this kind of privacy has nothing to do with sex. Men may desire this kind of privacy equally to women. It is my observation that older firefighters, male and female alike, are more inclined to want a little more privacy at work.
Some argue against creating private spaces in fire stations, saying it eliminates the opportunity for team bonding and camaraderie among crews. It’s true that a shared dorm can create some positive memories among crews at times. But more often, it can actually create frustration and resentment.
I hear firefighters complain that crews don’t do anything together aside from emergency response. In the age of social media and nonstop texting, many firefighters are glued to their phones when not actively performing some official function. This does undermine the fellowship that is so important among those in a difficult and stressful job like firefighting.
Company officers should address this need by providing a variety of opportunities for firefighters to connect informally in the station. Shared meals are a great way to do this. Even if people choose not to cook together, they can still sit down and eat together. Group projects around the station, hands-on training, intentional group discussions, spontaneous trips out for ice cream – all of these things give crews the chance to interact in informal ways and strengthen ties among members.
There are many ways to create a station environment that helps to build team spirit and cooperation. Everyone should be committed to this goal. But sleeping in close quarters in the same room does not have to be part of that equation.
Note: Thanks to CDF/CAL FIRE Retiree Notes, Aug. 25, 2020, for background history for this article.