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Longmont Fire: A case study in fire station design for member safety and wellbeing

The Longmont (Colorado) Fire Department’s two newest stations include some unique features

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Photo/City of Longmont (Colorado) Department of Public Safety

I am old enough to remember when having filthy bunker gear was a badge of honor. We only had one set each, and there were no laundry facilities in the stations, nor any service we could use to properly clean it. We were completely on our own, and I’m guessing there were some department members who went a whole career without ever washing their turnouts.

Those were not the good old days. Fortunately, things have changed.

Case in point: Longmont, Colorado, a city of around 100,000 people located north of Denver.

Prioritizing station safety

The Longmont Fire Department includes just over 100 personnel across six fire stations. Two of those stations are newly built, with some interesting design features that prioritize health and safety:

Dedicated turnout gear storage. LFD Station 2 was recently rebuilt at a new location, and Station 6 was rebuilt on the building’s original site; both include negative pressure rooms for turnout gear storage. Air is constantly filtered and exhausted from the storage space to remove contaminants on gear between active shifts, Assistant Chief John Weaver shared. The system also includes an energy recovery feature that is designed to use the heat from the outgoing air to prewarm incoming air before it enters the station furnaces. This is done without the actual mixing of outgoing and incoming air.

Multiple turnout gear sets. The LFD issues two sets of turnouts to all members so contaminated gear can be immediately washed after exposure. State-of-the-art laundry facilities – which are also negatively pressurized – are available at every station, and strict rules are in place to prevent bunker gear in station living spaces.

“There are constantly newer standards on what commercial laundry needs to be,” Weaver said. “It’s a moving target that’s hard to hit sometimes.”

Private sleeping spaces for all members. The level of attention to personal safety and wellbeing in station design extends further in Longmont’s fire stations to include private sleeping spaces for every member. These are not cubicles but rather fully walled rooms with closing doors. All stations in the city include this design feature.

Gone are the days when sleeping shoulder to shoulder in an airless dorm was the only option.

“I don’t know anyone who has not done individual bedrooms for a bit now,” Weaver said. “The demographics have changed. I don’t think you could ever go back.”

Many factors contribute to the desire for privacy in sleeping facilities, including differences in gender, age, how sound or wakeful one’s sleep may be, and snoring. Additionally, every fire station in Longmont uses a customized dispatch system that only wakes the person on the rig or rigs that must respond to a given call.

Weaver acknowledged that something can be lost with the end of common dorms: “From the old days of the open dorm, there was some camaraderie built in that. It’s different now. You now have a place where you can get away from people. In the old days, there was no place to go.” And although Weaver does not believe that the new living arrangement has significantly diminished crew cohesion, he did comment, “When you were in an open dorm station, if you had a problem with somebody, you had no choice but to solve it.”

But there is so much to be gained when individuals have some level of privacy and a better quality of sleep and rest while on duty. Most older firefighters can remember trying to sleep in a dorm with a habitual snorer, or someone who talked in their sleep, or someone who was restless and frequently awake and moving around.

More privacy in living space can be a recruitment issue as well. When you’re 22, sleeping in a dorm can be fun, like being at camp. By the time you’re 35, the novelty and appeal have largely worn off. And since fire departments now choose to recruit from a much wider age range, quality of station life could be a factor that influences a prospective candidate’s interest in a particular department.

Providing more privacy for firefighters is more than just about comfort; it also goes to mental health and wellness. The job is already hard enough, between difficult calls, long shifts, pressure to maintain certifications and competencies, and interpersonal dynamics among different personalities. Adding in unnecessary sleep deprivation and discomfort due to lack of privacy can make an already stressful environment that much worse.

Be proactive when it comes to safety improvements

Many people talk about prioritizing firefighters’ health and wellbeing. Station design and remodel can be costly areas for addressing these priorities but are also critical aspects of this effort. Fire departments must be proactive, not just reacting to needs but also looking ahead toward improvements that may be possible and necessary in the future.

More on LFD station design:

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.
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