Past meets Future

by Simon Gonzalez
September 2017

The color is so iconic it has its own name. Fire engine red.

Studies show that fire trucks painted lime yellow (aka "national safety yellow") have greater visibility and are involved in fewer accidents, but for traditionalists, only red will do.

Frank Blackley, Wilmington assistant fire chief of support services and the man in charge of building new stations to replace outdated ones, is a traditionalist. He had a simple directive when it came time to plan the city's newest facility.

"Does it look like a fire station?" he says. "Does it have some of the old traditional looks to it?"

That nod to tradition informed most of the design decisions for the exterior of Station 3, the 14,500-square-foot facility that was finished in October 2015.

Red is the dominant color. And not just any red. The prominent doors fronting the four apparatus bays -- unmissable by anyone driving past the station on Cinema Drive between Market Street and Kerr Avenue -- are painted fire engine red.

"We got the color from one of the fire trucks and sent it to the manufacturer and said, 'this is the color we want,'" says Mark Loudermilk, senior associate at Wilmington design firm Becker Morgan Group and lead architect for the project. "We took the paint chips out and said, 'it should look just like the fire trucks.'"

The Station 3 logo above the main entrance is another touch that evokes memories of fire stations past.

"The number itself was usually pretty prominent," Loudermilk says. "So we made a specific design decision to put that number 3 up there big and bold, right over the center of the entrance. We painted it the same red color as well. We used a stencil font, which is like an old military font where they would spray paint through a stencil. Firefighters are not military but there are some similarities. It's the idea that you're serving, and you're serving with this band of brothers that saves people's lives."

There's also an abundance of brick, the customary building material for fire stations.

"Typically, it's going to be brick," Blackley says. "It doesn't have to be, but I think that's one of the things a fire station typically looks like. It should look like a fire station."

The hose tower to the right of the building that rises above the roof of the apparatus bay is another design element inspired by traditional looks.

"It's like a steeple," Loudermilk says. "It's iconic at fire stations."

A hose tower was a necessity in older stations. When a crew returned from a call, the fire hoses were hoisted to the top of the tower to drip-dry, preventing rot. Today, wet hoses are dried with heaters. The tower at Station 3 is functional in that it's used for storage, but mostly it's there because it looks good from the outside.

Aesthetic considerations were as important as incorporating the traditional aspects. By necessity, every fire station has to be designed around the huge floor-to-ceiling apparatus bay doors. But that doesn't mean it has to be a cookie-cutter municipal facility.

"You're going to have those big garage doors," Loudermilk says. "They're usually facing a very public street, and they are big and wide. If you have three or four of them lined up, it's so easy to make them look institutional. You've got to spend a lot of time on the design so they look nice. What is the detailing in the brick around the doorways? What is the color of the doors?"

While the city's other city fire stations all have brick exteriors, Station 3 is the only one with red doors and a hose tower. The trend toward borrowing from the past will continue with the next station, under construction on Shipyard Boulevard.

"I think the new Shipyard station, from a traditional aspect, is going to look even better than this station," Blackley said. "Above the apparatus doors, it's going to have an arch like the old fire stations. The fa?ade-looking hose tower will be in the center of the station rather than on the side."

Loudermilk is also lead architect for the county's newest fire station, under construction in Ogden. The design direction was different on that one. New buildings are proliferating along the Market Street corridor, and the station had to fit in.

"They didn't want it to look too traditional because that location is just booming with development," Loudermilk says. "But we've still got brick. And we've still got an arch that goes all the way across the three doors. Even though it looks more modern, you've still got the traditional elements you can incorporate."

The location is an important element in the exterior design. At Wrightsville Beach, the fire station is part of the town's police/fire complex completed in 2010. The proximity to the ocean informed the design decisions made by Stewart Cooper Newell Architects, a Gastonia-based firm that specializes in fire stations.

The coastal climate and potential for severe weather required the main floor to be built on 20-foot high piers. The apparatus bays are on ground level, constructed in breakaway pods to prevent catastrophic damage in a storm surge.

The exterior is gray cedar, not red brick. The building materials are not only suited to the climate, they also fit in with the character of the beach town. Coastal Carolina influences are seen in the wrap-around porch and roof overhangs.

"I think it fits in well down there, what it looks like," says Blackley, who began his career in Wilmington in 1985, moved to Wrightsville Beach for 10 years, then returned to Wilmington in 1999. "It looks like it would be on a beach, which goes back to that idea of designing it to fit in where it is."

No matter whether the exterior is traditional, coastal or modern, the interior of any new station has to be designed and equipped to enable firefighters to fulfill their mission of keeping the community safe.

That's certainly true of Station 3. It might be old school in appearance, but it is a thoroughly modern facility.

The big red doors that are aesthetically pleasing are bi-fold doors that completely open in six seconds, about twice as fast as the rollup kind.

"Every second is critical," Blackley says. "They are more expensive, but the return on investment is greater. The parts don't break as often as they do on a regular rollup door. They will last the lifetime of the station. They are hurricane-wind rated. They open much quicker, and you can see when they are completely open. We've had it happen where you are in a truck and you think it's open but the door is still going up."

The apparatus bay is the first in the city with a safe air technology system mounted in the ceiling. The other stations have a system called Plymovent, which removes exhaust fumes through a yellow hose attached to the tailpipe of the truck. The new system senses when a fire truck starts and sucks the exhaust and harmful fumes from the diesel engines out of the bay. The technology includes programming to send an email alert when the filters are dirty so they can be replaced.

"All the air conditioning, the vehicle exhaust, everything is connected to a building-management system," Loudermilk says. "It's all software. If a thermostat is going haywire, people get emails. And they can control things remotely."

The clean air technology is a vast improvement on what once was in place at fire stations -- which, in some cases, was nothing. Assistant chief of operations Sammy Flowers, a 22-year veteran and the son of a Wilmington firefighter, says in the past there was little consideration given to the harmful effects of the exhaust.

"I remember old No. 6 station, at Greenfield Lake," he says. "Where the fire trucks would back in, right at the tailboard of the exhaust, were two to three chairs and a TV. That's where they hung out. When the fire truck would crank up it was blowing that combustible exhaust right into that place they were living. That's one thing that always comes to mind. I remember seeing those old polyester chairs, and a fire truck right there. I thought it was cool at the time. But it was really very dangerous."

Today's stations are designed with the firefighters' health and safety in mind. Station 3 has a gear washing and drying station on the far side of the apparatus bay. Smoke is a carcinogen, so getting the equipment clean after a call and keeping it away from the firefighters' living quarters is of paramount importance.

"There's just a different way of doing things now," Blackley says. "There's much more emphasis on decontamination. Cancer has become very prevalent in firefighters and it's because of the smoke. It gets on their skin. The first thing they need to do when they get back is take a shower, and clean their gear. The turnout gear needs to be washed. Used to be I never washed my turnout gear. I'd come back and I'd scrub it down if it was really dirty, but most of the time we never would. It was cool to have dirty gear. You were a firefighter."

The emphasis on health and safety extends to a spacious fitness room with weights and aerobic equipment.

"One of the big things we wanted was a larger fitness room," Blackley says. "The one over at Empie Park station, the most recent one built before this one [in 2011], is a third this size. It was way too small. The fire department has a lot more emphasis on physical fitness now. It was important that we had a big room."

It's another change from the old way of doing things.

"When I first started, you had folks that were health conscious and would work out and eat right, but a very small amount," Flowers says. "We've changed. Now there's more people that eat right and work out than ones that don't."

Firefighters are on shift for 24 hours at a time. They cook and eat meals at the station. Another improvement at Station 3 was the kitchen design.

"Because they are cooking a lot when they're on shift, we did a heavy-duty range," Blackley says. "It came up in our discussions with the firefighters. The ones we typically get are small. But if they have seven or eight people they are cooking for, a typical household range is not big enough. You have big pots to put on there."

The kitchen also features three pantries and three refrigerators, so each shift can keep their food separate.

"If you just walked into any station today versus one from 20 years ago, you can tell the kitchen has moved way up the priority list just based on what's in there," Loudermilk says. "The same thing with the fitness center being more of a priority, the kitchen is more of a priority because of the use. The small, inexpensive ones get beat up and it becomes a maintenance issue. You almost have to do it like a commercial kitchen, because it's going to get used like one."

The kitchen, fitness room and training room all include floor-to-ceiling windows that feature a view of a retention pond to the south of the building.

"We always pay attention to the site and see if there's anything we can take advantage of," Loudermilk says. "On this site, we have the great advantage of the pond. There's geese out there sometimes, there's fish. We wanted to focus as many of the spaces as possible on that pond: the training room, the kitchen, the fitness center, and the lounge, where they spend a lot of time just hanging out. Their job is stressful. They need to be able to get away from that."

Between the windows and the pond is a covered outdoor area with a grill, picnic tables and benches, and ceiling fans. The space serves two purposes. It's another place for the firefighters to relax when not on a call or training, and it shades the windows from the sun.

The efforts to make the fire station feel like a home to the men and women who live there while on shift extended to the sleeping quarters. They are located in the middle of the one-story building, separated from the apparatus bay by administrative offices, yet close enough to allow for fast response times.

"You want them to be quiet and away from the noise, and an apparatus bay is kind of a noisy place," Loudermilk says. "There are double stud walls with a one-inch space between the two walls. Both stud walls are filled with sound batting insulation. It gives you a high level of sound resistance. The other thing our interior design group did was to make sure the finishes they selected felt warm and cozy, like a house. The sleeping rooms have carpet. The colors are more residential in nature, so it doesn't feel institutional."

Station No. 3 isthe first in the city to gain LEED certification. It has low-volume plumbing fixtures, a high-efficiency HVAC system, solar panels to heat water for a radiant slab in the apparatus bay, recycled and regional building materials, and dedicated parking spaces for low-emission vehicles and car pools.

"The city wanted to do it for Station 3, to be somewhat sustainable," Blackley says.

 


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