“Let no man’s ghost come back to say my training let me down,” reads a quote displayed along a wall in the latest New York City Fire Department classroom/learning facility. This building is part of a $40-million, Phase One city project completed last March. The first phase of the project consists of three newly constructed buildings and one renovation, and allows New York City to produce the best-equipped and best-trained firefighters in the world. This new center also ensures that members of the fire department can live up to the uncompromising adage displayed on their wall.
With dated facilities from the 1970s, the fire department’s original training academy consisted of 10 buildings located on Randall’s Island. These training facilities weren’t meant to be used with live flames, and after 30-plus years of use, the buildings were suffering from considerable structural impairment: The department needed an improved place to train. “The fire department was a much different department in 2000 than it was in 1980; we had to provide a better and more integrated training experience,” explains Tom Fitzpatrick, the New York City Fire Department’s former deputy commissioner. “We used to train about 100 new employees every 2 or 3 months when [the original facilities] were first designed. [Now,] we are currently trying to turn out 800, 900, or 1,200 trained employees, depending on hiring phases for the city. More recently, during 9/11, we put thousands of people through the academy. We needed to provide greater utilization and a better place for everybody to be trained.”
Initial designs for the new site were created as part of Bayside-Queens’ Fort Totten, a military base that the fire department acquired from the U.S. Army. However, as environmental and community issues surfaced, the training center project was shifted back to Randall’s Island. Because of this site change, there was a rush to prepare appropriate construction documents. “In terms of moving a city project along, it was done at light speed,” says Fitzpatrick. “We were pretty successful. We never thought we would be changing gears to an entirely different location as fast as we did.”
The new training facilities are part of an ongoing project, but the first phase of the plan is complete: It includes a classroom/learning building, a “burn” building, and a training facility/field house. Cynthia Kracauer, managing principal at Swanke Hayden Connell Architects, New York City, and principal-in-charge of the project, emphasizes the amount of teamwork that went into the project’s design and construction: “We worked very closely with the fire department. It wasn’t the [typical] architect-meets-with-the-client-every-other-week. There was a period of time where we met with them every day. It was a very intense experience.”
The classroom building, a 35,000-square-foot facility, holds six classrooms and the fire department’s gym. Offering the most up-to-date audiovisual technology, the building includes a distance-learning center that provides instructional opportunities for firefighters in remote locations. The building also houses locker rooms, a cafeteria, and bunker storage. “[This building] advances the cause of firefighter training in the classroom to absolutely the leading edge in terms of instructional techniques,” says Kracauer. “In terms of a school for firefighters, it’s as state-of-the-art as any academic context. It’s a fully integrated learning environment.”
The burn building is a facility that allows for computer-controlled fires to be carried out, helping recreate various scenarios for firefighters – including building, subway, and automobile fires. These controlled fires are safer for everyone involved, and result in less impact on the buildings; they make maintenance easier and allow for longer durability (an upgraded metal was specified to protect the walls in the building). Providing several flexibility options, the fire department can change the building’s 6,000-square-foot layout from month to month to represent different building types and allow probationary firefighters to gain experience in realistic heat and fire simulations.
Training Building/Field House
Former Fire Department Commissioner Thomas von Essen and Fitzpatrick shared a vision of a realistic, enclosed training environment for probationary firefighter training. “Randall’s Island is quite inhospitable for at least 4 or 5 months a year,” explains Fitzpatrick. “It’s extremely cold. One of the problems, having been an instructor there at one point myself, was that most of the [firefighters] going through training during those periods weren’t listening to anything you were saying – they were just trying to keep warm. So, the concept was to build a facility that we could use around the clock, 12 months a year.” The training building/field house, the most unique aspect of the project, is Fitzpatrick’s vision brought to life, and contains up-to-the-minute firefighting technology. By reproducing emergency conditions without using live fire or water (simulated smoke, fire truck models, hoses, and sound effects are involved), the fire department is able to concentrate on search, rescue, and escape efforts using the building’s simulated full-size New York City “street” – complete with manholes, parking meters, mailboxes, street lights, hydrants, etc. The facility also simulates different building types, representing all major kinds of construction used in the city. Commercial facilities, retail buildings, brownstones, private dwellings, and apartment complexes are stacked vertically along each side of this indoor street, with many purposely not built to code in order to symbolize real-life circumstances. Swanke Hayden Connell Architects’ Kracauer explains that her team worked very closely with the fire department to determine which aspects of New York City buildings needed to be recreated. “The primary goal was to provide models of all different building types – every conceivable building element that a firefighter is likely to come in contact with,” she says. A variety of façades, windows, doors, elevators, hardware, stairs, and fire escapes are represented in these simulations.
“This training center is completely and totally unique. There’s not another facility like this in the country,” emphasizes Kracauer. In this facility, which is also 35,000 square feet in size, firefighters practice essential techniques such as entry, search, ventilation, and hose line operation – and sessions can be monitored by officials and teachers via the facility’s observation room. This observation room is linked to classrooms with monitors using TV cameras within the buildings for live interaction. In fact, real-life situations are able to be depicted so accurately that NBC’s Third Watch frequently uses the training center as a set for its weekly television show.
Meeting Today’s Needs – and the Future’s
Since construction started on the project just prior to 9/11, the Swanke Hayden Connell team was asked to accelerate the project shortly after the event to allow more firefighters to begin training: The number of recruits requiring training had doubled. “When 9/11 happened and 343 firefighters were killed, not only did [New York City] have the greatest loss of any fire department in one day, they also did not have probationary firefighters in the pipeline to replace them. That was a great challenge … we were happy to be of service,” says Kracauer. “It would’ve been an interesting project without 9/11, but it became more emotionally charged because of 9/11.”
In addition to training the city’s firefighters, Fitzpatrick indicates that the campus is ideal for multiple agencies to use for combined training, “especially in the new Homeland Security environment,” he says. “They didn’t have that capability before. It’s probably the only facility where you can bring together a number of different agencies in a simulated city environment to conduct training exercises.” Fitzpatrick indicates that the U.S. Military and Marine Corps, as well as a number of other federal agencies, have been to the facility for joint training sessions. Even Russian President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin brought a group of firefighters from Moscow to train on the new campus.
Because Randall’s Island is making the transition from an industrial area (what it was when the original training facilities were located there) to a public district, the training campus also functions as a multi-use space for the entire city. “Over the years, demands for community space in New York City have increased. [The fire department] ended up being the only municipal agency that’s an actual tenant [on Randall’s Island], along with the parks department. All around us is a public park; a community space. We were pretty much isolated [before], but now we’re sharing this space with the rest of the people in the city,” says Fitzpatrick. Randall’s Island is an ideal venue for major public events because it provides easy access to large, open spaces – similar to what is available in New York City’s Central Park. “[This campus] doesn’t just add to the inventory of wonderful public buildings that exist in New York City; it creates a very special new place. It belongs to the city and is really integral to the city,” says Kracauer. “The fire department is very proud of [its] facility. The whole city is proud of that facility. It’s a showcase of the highest, most advanced kind of context for firefighter training.”
Leah B. Garris (email@example.com) is associate editor at Buildings magazine.