Improving our Fire and Rescue Facilities: meeting the demands for a more diverse workforce

Will Burkitt
Today’s fire and rescue services need very different facilities from the heritage estate still operating in much of the UK. Facilities that not only provide the best working environment for staff, but also act as a community interface and resource, are a priority.

Meeting the needs of a more diverse workforce, incorporating new technology and equipment, and enabling effective collaboration with other public services are just some of the considerations—yet they need to be achieved within a constrained funding situation. It’s a tall order, but services are obliged to find the best solution.

Estate rationalisation may bring best value

Many 1950s and 60s fire stations are reaching the end of their lifecycle, requiring refurbishment or replacement. It’s a good time to consider whether the location of the ageing stock best serves the community. Demographic and operational changes, together with response time targets, may point to relocation as the best option.

If the existing facility occupies a large plot of urban land, this could be a valuable asset. Prime real estate could be released for redevelopment, providing much-needed capital receipt which can be used for the new facility.

Initiatives, such as central governments One Public Estate programme offer financial support to public bodies to investigate and viability of such redevelopment so long as the potential benefits include more housing, job creation or reduced running costs for public assets.

The case for co-location

Under-utilised buildings should also be scrutinised. In response to the growing pressures on blue-light services, collaboration between services has been encouraged, with the Policing and Crime Act 2017, for example, allowing Police and Crime Commissioners to take control of Fire and Rescue Authorities. Whether or not services are jointly or separately run, co-location can be explored, perhaps combining multipurpose spaces and training facilities. It is possible to achieve operational cost savings through co-location on things such as utilities, maintenance and smarter procurement practices, however, there are challenges such as security and confidentiality that need to be overcome. Successful co-located facilities will only be achieved if the partners are willing to truly collaborate.

A changing workforce

Firefighters in England are approximately 95 per cent male and white. The Home Office’s 2018 campaign encouraged change, with many local services subsequently setting targets for improvement.  For example, in 2020-21, West Midlands Fire Service is aiming for 60 per cent of its new entrants to be women, and for 35 per cent to be BAME (from a black, asian or minority ethnic background). Diversity and gender inclusion initiatives require closer attention to be paid to privacy and dignity issues within the estate. This can be a challenge in older facilities, but new builds have an opportunity to get it right.

No one size fits all—even where it might make sense

There are currently no national guidelines for the design of UK fire stations. In this respect, our shared best practice is currently behind other countries, especially Germany and Sweden. Certainly, there will be differing local needs, based on individual crewing requirements, operational delivery models, location, planning restrictions and ground conditions, but it would make sense for the UK to have a more consistent design philosophy and procurement approach if the country’s fire and rescue estate is to be made fit for purpose and future-proof.

Individual services are increasingly producing local design guides and very recently the National Fire Estates Group was set up by Berkshire Fire and Rescue Service. This is a voluntary group consisting of representatives from fire services across the UK who come together to share best practise in relation to Collaboration, Training Facilities, Environment and Sustainability, Procurement, Legal matters and National Station Specification Guidance. This is extremely positive and we look forward to hearing more about the outcomes in due course.

Ideally there would be properly-funded research, leading to a consensus on health and safety, best practice and innovation in facilities. National guidelines will help designers to be consistent in creating the most appropriate space standards, layouts, contaminant management policies, adjacency standards, training and fitness facilities.

Fire stations are still community signifiers and as such need to be designed to engage with and support a wide range of community needs, such as  offering community space for hire or providing a location from which to promote the public-facing community safety messages.

Working with Faithful+Gould

Our team has a strong track record of adding value to emergency service providers’ capital projects, typically focusing on many of the challenges described above. We understand the specific needs of these services and can offer a range of consultancy services to support fire and rescue services with delivering successful project outcomes. Our design, project management, cost management, building surveying and health and safety teams offer support with estates strategies, new buildings, extensions, refurbishments and maintenance planning.

In addition to design, project management and commercial management of capital works, fire and rescue service clients have also benefited from our carbon reduction management, lifecycle costing and production of strategic best practice design guidelines.

Our portfolio includes our current work on a new live fire training and learning centre and wholetime fire station in the South East of England. This flagship project has been finding innovative solutions to tackle many of the issues in this article and deliver a facility which supports the needs of the fire service of the future.

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