Des Moines fire fighters spearhead innovative fire station design prioritizing cancer prevention and behavioral health

January 4 • 2024

Cancer among fire fighters remains the primary cause of line-of-duty deaths in the fire service. Alongside the Firefighter Cancer Support Network (FCSN), the IAFF is sounding the alarm on prevention inside the firehouse, during decontamination (decon), and on the fireground during Fire Fighter Cancer Awareness Month.  

Des Moines Fire Department Station 11 debuted in 2021.

“I think one of the big things that we did with Station 11, and we’ve repeated in future stations, is identifying what we want,” said Jonathan Lund, Des Moines Fire Department fire marshal. “Even when we selected architects and design professionals, we identified that we want carcinogen reduction as a priority, we want the health and wellness of our fire fighters to be a priority.” 

The newly constructed Fire Station 11 in Des Moines, including land purchase, design, site preparation, and construction, cost $8 million. According to Lund, Station 11 was funded via the issuance of General Obligation (GO) Bonds in the normal city Capital Improvement process. The firehouse incorporates state-of-the-art design elements for the safety of fire fighters returning from emergency calls in hazardous environments. 

Station 11 apparatus bay.

“It’s just a good system, how it flows through, and cancer prevention was a big one, but I think we see that now sleep patterns, different things like that have a huge impact,” said Joe Van Haalen, Des Moines, IA Local 4 president. 

Station 11 places a strong emphasis on health and wellness, with three individual sleeping pods rather than a shared dormitory space. Additionally, fire fighters have the flexibility to personalize the alert system in their sleeping quarters, choosing the preferred level of brightness and volume for their individual alerts during the night.  

The firehouse also includes direct access to washing machines and showers to prevent contaminants from making their way into the living quarters, heavy-duty laundry equipment to clean structural firefighting gear known to be covered in carcinogens after a fire, a vehicle exhaust extraction system (helping to maintain a cleaner air environment in the apparatus bay), and a turnout room adjacent to the apparatus bay where structural firefighting gear is kept. 

Direct access to heavy- duty washing machines in Station 11.

“We’ve got a system in place for when the rigs pull in, it just pressurizes the room and takes all that up and out,” said Van Haalen. “Then being able to come in and do decon as you move through the system so that we’re not taking dirty gear into the living quarters of the station.” 

According to a recent article, at least 10 Des Moines fire fighters have been diagnosed with some form of cancer since 2018. 

“Cancer poses a significant challenge for the fire service, yet by taking steps to prevent or minimize exposure to carcinogens, as seen with Des Moines Fire Station 11, we can make a difference,” said 2nd District Vice President, Mark Woolbright. “Our emphasis is on advocating for the best practices to be observed on the fireground, at the station, and in personal lives, all aimed at saving lives.”

In their efforts to minimize exposure and enact preventive measures against carcinogen contamination in the firehouse, members of Local 4 are dedicated to shaping the future, one firehouse at a time. 

“I think one of the things we were building on is you can put all of the fancy things you want in a fire station, but if it’s not functional, if it doesn’t make sense for our personnel to use them, they’re not going to get used,” said Lund. 

“Replacing 11 stations overnight is impossible. Incrementally, it involves simple additions like washers and dryers, progressing to a second set of gear, extractors, and making effective decon procedures accessible to all. Construction and equipment alone are insufficient; supporting policies and procedures are essential,” said Van Haalen.   

Van Haalen says the new Des Moines Fire Station 4, with similar features, is expected to be completed in 2025.  

For a full virtual tour of the station, visit the link here.  

To learn more about Fire Fighter Cancer Awareness month, research, cancer prevention in action, survivor stories, and early detection tips, visit the link here. For more information on best practices to reduce exposure and fire station design, visit the link here