By: Victor Montgomery, AIA

Fire poles are an iconic symbol and historic component of fire stations. The “brass pole” is beloved to children from all over the world and instantly recognizable as a key feature of many, many fire stations. Times and designs of fire stations have evolved of the years from horse drawn fire wagons to modern aerial ladder trucks but one constant has remained – the fire pole. Firemen were trained in how to properly “slide” the pole and often demonstrated the techniques to adults and school children visiting the fire station. For many generations of us this was part of our image of the fire service – that and fire men rescuing kittens from the upper branches of trees.

However, now in the 21st century with the limited availability and high price for land for fire station locations, the design of stations is changing. With less and more expensive land as the only option for locating new stations, fire station design is changing, particularly in dense urban areas. While fire apparatus seem to get larger and larger and sites get smaller and smaller the natural response is to go vertical. This brings with it issues related to the use and safety of fire poles.

In these new “vertical” designs the ground floor is likely to have a 16-20 foot ceiling height. The upper floors may house functions such as fire administration, kitchen, dining, day room, exercise rooms, restrooms, locker rooms and sleeping quarters with ceiling heights of 10-12 feet for each floor. In a 3 story station this adds up to a drop from the 3rd floor to the apparatus floor of 26-30 feet or more. Clearly a vertical drop of this dimension requires caution and rethinking the safety of fire poles. Repeated drops from these heights also brings clearly into focus the potential health impacts to fire fighters. There are a limited number of options to the use of fire poles each of which has potential issues. The most obvious options are elevators, stairs and slides. Elevators are expensive and require lots of maintenance, are subject to failure during power outages and are relatively slow moving. Stairs are highly subject to trip and fall hazards, especially when used in a hurried manner, and when just waking from sleep. Falls on stairs can be fatal because of the blunt force trauma of the sharp corners of the stair treads during a fall. Slides are rarely used but not the most safe option. Slides take up an immense amount of space when used in multi-story applications. They are usually broken into “flights” of slides separated by horizontal landings used to transfer between slides. Their space consumption is roughly the same as a stair-way.

In our design of these multi-story, urban fire facilities on tight sites we have considered the pro’s and con’s of many options and are currently using fire poles, but with a twist. The vertical drop is accomplished by using off-set fire poles in a vertical shaft. The twist is that the drop from the upper floors is divided into segments. The first drop is from the 3rd floor to the 2nd floor with a landing (roughly 12-15 feet). Then a horizontal transfer to another pole for the final drop from the 1st floor to the apparatus bay floor (roughly 16-20 feet). With proper training, and proper safety precautions such as soft landing pads to reduce shock at the bottom of drops we have found this solution to be more space efficient, safer and faster in comparison to other alternatives.