Axis has more than two dozen fire station projects to its name. Since 2001, we have designed stations for communities across Indiana, including Carmel, Crawfordsville, Indianapolis, Monticello, New Albany, Shelbyville, and West Lafayette. But there’s one thing many of our stations have in common: private, gender-neutral sleeping quarters.
The need for gender-neutral spaces
Traditionally, fire stations have featured a large dormitory — one furnished with individual beds, bunk beds, or wall (Murphy) beds. But privacy has become a priority as more women join the profession.
According to the International Association of Women in Fire & Emergency Service (iWomen), approximately 11,000 women in the United States work as career firefighters, with an additional 35,000 to 40,000 women serving as volunteer firefighters. A growing number of individuals who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and/or non-binary are also joining departments, making the need for privacy even more pertinent.
Captain Felicity Morgan, a merit officer with Wayne Township Fire Department, notes the importance of private dorm rooms.
“Individual sleeping quarters provide privacy, whether or not the station is male-dominated, female-dominated, or if individuals are transgendered,” she says. “Everyone has equal space and privacy.”
Morgan, who has been a firefighter for 18 years, believes private rooms have multiple benefits.
“The pros are clear and simple,” she says. “Individual sleeping quarters provide a private area to sleep – a big plus when people snore – a place to change besides the restroom, and a private space when an individual needs some private time.”
In other words, comfort is key. And for Axis, the incorporation of “dorm scenarios” make the sleeping quarters, lockers, and bathrooms often feel like a tiny hotel room.
A sense of respite, a place to relax
The ability to relax is a huge plus. Firefighting is consistently listed as one of the most stressful professions, and individual dorm rooms provide a sense of respite, and a place to recharge. A study conducted in 2007 by the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the United States Fire Administration, and Oregon Health & Science University explored the effects sleep deprivation has on firefighters. The study notes that chronic sleep deprivation may not be recognized, but that “it is important for workers to acknowledge their need for, and maximize their ability to achieve, adequate restorative sleep.”
Here’s where private sleeping quarters – especially if they are climate-controlled – have an advantage. Firefighters can adjust the temperature of the room, install a nightlight or noise machine, and avoid other bunkroom disruptions, such as snoring. Individual rooms also allow for the installation of flexible, configurable alert systems. These systems alert only the individuals necessary for a particular run, preserving the sleep of the others.
“It is a nice feature that aids in getting sleep when we are not responding to emergencies,” Morgan says. “Usually, each crew does not respond to the same call. In the middle of the night with open bunks, everyone was woken up, even if the call wasn’t for them. In the fire stations at my department, we have the ability to program each room.”
Wayne Township isn’t the only department employing these types of alert systems. Axis also incorporated them into Carmel Fire Department’s newest station, Station 44. Completed in 2016, the 16,200-square-foot station features eight private dorm rooms. Adjacent to each dorm, there is a locker “vestibule.” The vestibules have two doors – one to the private dorm room, and one to the private restroom – that make shift changes easier, and don’t disturb a firefighter who may be sleeping.
But don’t private sleeping quarters take up more space?
Stations with private dorms can have the same footprint as those with bunkrooms. For example, private dorms eliminate the need for a general “quiet room,” which saves on square footage. And since individual, Jack-and-Jill, or unisex bathrooms accommodate any firefighter, additional restroom facilities aren’t needed.
The Jack-and-Jill concept appears in several of our stations, including Station 43 in Carmel, Station 42 in Sugar Creek Township, and Station 53 in White River Township, currently in design development.
“[The Jack-and-Jill concept] seemed to be the most efficient,” says White River Township Fire Department Chief Jeremy Pell. “We’ve got individual sleeping rooms with shared bathrooms. We’re using the money we’ve been given wisely, and are providing a level of privacy for the firefighters.”
Another way to save space? Wall beds. In New Albany, each firefighter at Station 4 has a private room in which to sleep, and a mattress to call their own. And since each room incorporates three Murphy beds, Axis kept the station to a modest 9,500 square feet.
If square footage doesn’t allow for private restrooms, two or three unisex shower facilities can be constructed across the hall from the sleeping quarters. But no matter the layout, firefighters must be able to get to the engines as fast as possible. So, when designing a station, it’s important to carefully map out each space and cut down on sprawl. Taking both comfort and efficiency into account is what turns a 25-year station into a 50-year station.
When Pell first started in the fire service, there were very few women in the profession. Over his 29-year career, however, he has seen the need for privacy and gender-neutral spaces increase.
“I’ve seen it evolve from it really not being an issue, to it being something that we certainly have to manage,” he says. “Even when I started, it was a tough culture, being in a traditional bunkroom with a bunch of different firefighters. The point was nearly hit home when it was more and more common to have female firefighters … it is important that we all have a place where we are comfortable and have some privacy.”
While some fire stations have been retrofitted to accommodate more diverse crews, the adjustments hardly serve as long-term solutions. Women who must pass through the captain’s quarters to access the women’s restroom are not in an ideal situation. Axis has also come across stations that have converted fitness rooms into women’s bunkrooms, moving the fitness equipment into the apparatus bay. Other issues include the lack of separate changing facilities. And since the need for gender-neutral spaces has not been met, it is unsurprising that women have encountered harassment and shunning.
To lower the risk of complaints at fire stations, and to accommodate for future growth, we design with diversity in mind. Individual rooms – which can accommodate any individual, regardless of sex or gender – are often considered. But if bunkrooms are a must, there are several questions stations must ask themselves, including “How many women do we anticipate hiring over the next 10 years?”, “Are gender-separate or unisex shower facilities more appropriate?”, and “Are separate bunkrooms better, or is one co-ed bunkroom with curtains preferred?”.
There is an advantage to bunkrooms, though – a sense of camaraderie.
“My first few years on the job, sharing sleeping quarters increased crew bonding,” says Morgan. “Firefighters tend to be close-knit, and that closeness is what can make a good crew great.”
Pell agrees firefighters need a sense of community, but doesn’t think private sleeping quarters are isolating.
“Sleeping is a very personal thing,” he says. “We have to do the things we do at home at the fire station. We have to change our clothes, wash our clothes, take a shower. We need to have the space and the privacy to do those things.”
A home away from home
Fire stations are a unique blend of residential and commercial space. They serve as civic anchors, and also as a home away from home for firefighters. As more women and individuals who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and non-binary join fire departments, living spaces should be designed with flexibility in mind. Private, gender-neutral spaces give individuals a distraction-free place to relax and rest, accommodate for a station’s future growth, and ensure a station will last for generations.