The Fire Department of New York is made up of many brave men and women, but none are as trained or motivated as the members of the city's five rescue companies. Unlike engine and ladder crews, which go out whenever an alarm goes off, the rescue teams are only called by other firemen when a real emergency is underway. If a building collapses on you, or you are trapped on a ledge, or pinned beneath a car, or your helicopter sinks beneath the Hudson River, these are the guys who will saw, rappel, hoist, dive, or do whatever it takes to get you to safety.
They are the special forces of the fire department, and they have special tools to do their job. But not until the completion this year of Rescue Company 3 in the Bronx—designed by Polshek Partnership—has anyone ever built a facility tailored to the specific needs of these elite units. (Actually, we're told it is the first such building in two decades. It turns out that a new home for Rescue Company 1, in Manhattan, was completed in 1988.)
“This was our first firehouse, and even the fire department had never done a building dedicated to a rescue company, so this was uncharted territory,” said Guy Maxwell, principal-in-charge for Polshek. As a result of this knowledge gap, department brass gave the architects unprecedented access to the firemen to ascertain a program. This proved to be a challenge.
The FDNY is steeped in tradition, and its members are not big on change. Furthermore, the rescue companies have a make-do attitude developed over years of adapting cramped and antiquated spaces to fit their requirements. Maxwell explained that when he first visited Rescue 3 to ask the company what they wanted, one firefighter produced a sheaf of blueprints for their current 100-year-old firehouse. “Here's what we want,” he said. “Build that.”
Through repeated visits and conversations, the architects developed a functional plan organized around an apparatus bay. Apparatus—not firetruck—is what firemen call their vehicles, and a rescue team's apparatus is a toolbox on wheels whose compartments are stocked with jaws of life, diamond-bladed saws, pneumatic jacks, climbing rigs, shoring implements, scuba gear, and more.
Polshek extended this concept to the building, creating what Maxwell terms a “giant toolbox.” Around the bay are rooms for storing and maintaining the company's various implements. There is also a training area, including a climbing wall for high-angle drills and a fake manhole for confined spaces exercises. The first floor's hard materials-bricks and concrete-reflect this “dirty” program.
Warmer materials, mainly wood, take over upstairs, which houses the station chief's office, kitchen, dormitory, bathrooms, and fitness center. The architects also placed windows throughout the interior and arranged the rooms to create views into the bay. Skylights flood the interior with natural light, while maintaining privacy.
Rescue 3 is one of nine projects that the Department of Design and Construction has completed for the FDNY since 2002. The agency currently has three EMS stations either in construction or about to break ground, and Norwegian firm Snøhetta won a commission to design a facility for Rescue 2 in Brooklyn, though that project has been put on hold due to budget constraints.