New Swedish gender neutral "recovery room" concept with separated showers allow male and female firefighters to debrief together after calls
Community for all?
A group of Swedish architects in cooperation with the Swedish Network for Women in the Fire Services has created a new concept for washing up and changing after interventions.The new concept allows for individual privacy without needing to separate the teams while showering and relaxing after the calls.
Text edited by Björn Ulfsson / CTIF NEWS, based on the Swedish document Social Byggnorm 18, and on interviews with Ms Hjortsberg and Ms Albertsson.
Illustrations by Social Byggnorm 18 (unless otherwise indicated)
The concept "Social Byggnorm 18" has now been developed into an actual building code which is to be considered every time a new fire station is built or being renovated in Sweden.
"This concept allows for everybody to participate in the important social bonding and informal de-briefing that often takes place after the intervention, while changing and showering", says Mona Hjortzberg, a firefighters´advocate who has been working to improve women firefighters´conditions during most of her 20 year career in the fire service.
"While these informal "post intervention conversations" are important and often contribute to a sense of community, the "locker room talks" can also contribute to a sense of exclusion if the conditions for participation in them are unequal", says Mia Albertsson, a firefighter with a background in architecture, and involved in the project since 2017.
Today, most fire stations have separate changing rooms for women and men. However, dividing changing rooms by gender is based on the idea that everyone is expected to feel safe and comfortable while changing and showering together with other other of the same biological sex. This is not always the case, and the reasons for it vary.
Another challenge with divided changing rooms is that there are still comparatively small numbers of women working as firefighters, and this unbalance becomes extra clear in the changing room.
A lot of time is spent in this type of space, not just showering and changing. The changing room is also a place to "land" after interventions and training, it´s a room for fellowship and conversation. The conversations can be about everything from planning the day's tasks or meals, to reflections from the call and exchange of lessons learned.
"This work started already 17 years ago. I was involved already from the beginning of this process, which revolved around how to improve the working environment at the fire station and turn it into an official social building code", says Mona Hjortsberg, chair for the Swedish Network for Women in Fire & Rescue Services (KIRTJ.se) and also the co-chair of the CTIF Commission for Women in Fire & Rescue.
Mona Hjortsberg is a firefighter with 30 years of service, a female firefighters´ advocate and lately also a union representative. She has spent more than two decades of her working career on finding ways to improve several issues affecting female firefighters. One of her important projects have been creating a heat resistant sports bra which can could be used under turnout gear (by both women and men). Her network has also worked on methods and tools to make door breaking easier without needing to rely only on muscle power.
"While working on these issue we also started to discuss how we could improve the inclusion of female firefighters at the fire station. Many of the women experienced a disconnect when coming back from a call, knowing that the conversations, the sharing and bonding among the male firefighters would continue in their locker room, while the women - sometimes perhaps only one per shift - would have to shower and change alone, in a separate space", says Mona Hjorzberg.
"It is important to stress the fact that this is not at all about reducing privacy. Rather it is about ways to use the architecture to provide full privacy while still letting the conversations in the locker room continue - for everybody".
Keep the conversations going!
For Mia Albertsson, a firefighter with a background in architecture, this project is really not about creating a financial burden for employers, but about educating fire organisations how they can create social improvements without the need for expensive remodelling or heavy renovations:
"In fact, we only ask to have this concept considered when there is a renovation or remodeling in the budget already. In many cases, the employers are quite happy to find that not only are these changes cost effective, the concept also saves a certain amount of space in the station which can be used for other things", Albertsson says.
Since Mia Albertsson joined the Network in 2017, she has helped evaluate how the new concept of partially gender neutralized "recovery rooms" have worked in the stations throughout Sweden who have already embraced the concept.
"Those stations that have made the change are so far generally positive. The problem we encounter is sometimes in "selling" the idea to people who have never heard about it before. It is really important to understand that this is not about making men and women shower together, or taking away their privacy. This is about using small, cost effective architectural changes in the work environment that can allow for those important after-call conversations to continue - also in the locker room", says Mia Albertsson to CTIF News.
Togetherness or seclusion?
In order to create a space that contributes to equal conditions for community and recovery, two lines of thought are proposed for how changing rooms can be designed at fire stations:
Changing Room Passage
The purpose of a recovery room is to take advantage of the social interaction that already takes place in many changing rooms today. By enabling everyone to participate in the community and conversation that takes place in this room contributes the design of a recovery room for inclusion.
Changing Room Passage
In a changing room passage, the shower and changing room are seen as purely practical
functions. The social interaction that takes place in today's changing rooms is not given space here, but is moved to other areas at the fire station. A changing room passage contributes to privacy and tranquility.
Example 1: Recovery rooms vs separated change rooms
The idea of a recovery room is to create a sense of openness and inclusion that contributes to community for all. After training as well as rescue efforts, this room becomes a place to "land", a space for togetherness and conversation where everyone has the opportunity to participate. This is of great importance for the exchange of experience and knowledge transfer.
Instead of having completely separated rooms for men and women, the idea is to keep the majority of the space shared, but only providing privacy for changing and showering. This idea has space saving benefits since it has shown in the Swedish stations which have introduced the concept that the employer can actually provide more value on less actual physical space.
Each work shift begins in the recovery room. Here, each person has their own locker with ample space for shelves and storage for private clothes, stationery, exercise clothes, towel and hygiene items. There is also a shower and change before and after work and training sessions.
Openness as a principle
There are many ways to design a recovery room. One way can be to create traditionally divided changing and shower areas, in connection to each other. Through material selection and open solutions in architecture, conversations can be made possible between the different spaces.
Another alternative may be that the recovery room consists of individual shower spaces that still allow for community and social interaction during dressing and showering. This is in order to get away from the division into just two sexes, especially since perhaps not everyone wants to shower with their colleagues, regardless of gender.
Challenges with the Recovery Room Concept:
A recovery room should enable community as well as mental and physical recovery. This is likely to lead to spontaneous and informal conversations that contribute to the transfer of experience and knowledge.
How can it be ensured that these do not replace the formal conversations and activities organized by the management,? The sense of safety inside the group can affect the experience of an open architecture and the conditions for recovery.
It becomes therefore important to ensure that everyone feels they have a sense of belonging and contribute to defining and influencing the social culture that thrives in the recovery room.
If the recovery room includes a sauna, it is important that it does not deviate from the principle of openness and community. This means that if the sauna is gender-segregated, conversations between the different spaces must be made possible.
Finally, you should agree on a clothing and code of conduct in the common areas of the recovery room (also applies to saunas).
Limiting nudity can be important in creating a safe work environment.
Example 2: Changing Room Passages
The idea of a changing room passage is to separate change and social interaction. Therefore, this direction focuses on the main function of the dressing room, that is, to shower and change. It will be a temporary, private room for free time just before or after an activity.
A Changing Room Passage offers the employee an opportunity for privacy, which can be appreciated in a profession where many tasks are performed in groups.
Each room in the changing room is adapted to individual needs, the showering and changing takes place completely individually at the beginning and end of each work session, as well as before and after training.
Because the staff works in different shifts, several people can share a changing room without having to use it at the same time. Personal lockers with ample shelf space and storage private clothes, station clothes, training clothes, towels and hygiene items are available in the individual changing rooms or in direct connection to them.
Challenges with the Changing Room Passage concept:
A changing room passage removes the opportunity for conversation and socializing
community that most of today's locker rooms offer. Therefore, there must be other spaces for gatherings at the fire station.
How can rooms for promoting conversations, both collective and confidential, still be offered if you embrace this concept?
It is important to keep in mind that situations can arise that are connected to the changing room passage if there are changes in the shifts during, for example, illness or holiday. This is perhaps especially if the personal storage lockers are located inside the shower and changing rooms.
It is important to agree on which dress and code of conduct should apply in and around all shared spaces. In conclusion, it is important that the changing passages' principle of privacy and tranquility is allowed to permeate all parts of the passage. This means that if the changing room passage has a sauna, it also must be built on this principle. Sauna thus becomes an individual activity.
An example of a remodeling project
At one of the Greater Stockholm stations, in the fire service region of Södertörn, a minor renovation was carried out in 2018 in line with the principles that apply to a recovery room. Through a minor redevelopment, the gender-segregated dressing rooms were replaced by a partition with an opening towards the ceiling to create the opportunity to have conversations between the two rooms. The sauna was made accessible to everyone at the same time by enabling access from both rooms. In connection with this change, a new a rule was introduced for everyone to always keep covered with a towel in the sauna. At a follow-up some time after the renovation, several of the employees said that it led to increased inclusion and a better sense of participation.
The Social Byggnorm 18 Project Group:
Emma Börjesson, project leader, Halmstad University
Karin Ehrnberger, fil dr design, Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan
Anna Isaksson, fil dr sociologi, Halmstad University
Maja Gunn, fil dr design, University of Gothenburg
Camilla Andersson, architect, Aalto University
Hanna Börjesson, architect SAR/MSA, Carlstedt Arkitekter AB
Anette Eriksson architect SAR/MSA, Carlstedt Arkitekter AB
Carl Liljeblad, architect MSA, Carlstedt Arkitekter AB
Anders Edstam, vice Fire chief, Södertörns brandförsvarsförbund
Ann-Sofi Öhman, HR-specialist, Södertörns brandförsvarsförbund