Fighting Fires in Exurbia

April 05, 1995

Fire protection is probably the last thing a prospective homeowner thinks about when considering the purchase. Schools, roads, water and sewer, even trash pickup schedules may be on the checklist. But location of the fire station and water supply for firefighting seldom come to mind.

In urban areas, fire hydrants are taken for granted. But the insistent sprawl of residential development into remote rural pockets of exurbia has made many of these new homes increasingly vulnerable to fire. Essential water supplies for firefighters may be too distant, or too inaccessible to be much good when fire breaks out.

As Sun reporter Phyllis Brill wrote this week, metropolitan counties vary considerably in their approach to an admittedly growing problem.

Baltimore and Harford counties, where the rural residential explosion is most apparent, have virtually no water-supply requirements for new subdivisions. Firefighter groups insist that must change.

Harford is discussing a bill to build standpipes when any bridge is constructed or repaired, including retrofitting some older bridges. The standpipes would provide easy hookup of hoses to a fire truck on the bridge, speeding the time it takes to get water to a fire scene.

That's a good idea. But a broader response, requiring adequate, accessible water for fire protection within reasonable distance, should be a condition of new subdivisions and commercial developments, just as counties demand existence of adequate roads and sewage and school capacity.

Baltimore County fire officials would like to see the provision for access to reliable water supplies (natural sources or storage tanks) made a part of the county's master land use plan for development.

Anne Arundel County has a 17-year-old law that requires rural subdividers to guarantee a nearby firefighting water supply for all structures, building underground storage tanks if necessary. It hasn't stopped development there.

Since 1990, Carroll County has required an adequate supply of water within 600 feet of new commercial, industrial or multi-unit residential developments. Developments of single-family homes are not covered, although fire officers want them to be.

The quicker that firefighters can secure a water source, the better their chances of saving a burning dwelling. A mere 20 minutes can make a huge difference. That's a persuasive argument for regulators to assure water supplies are accessible for fire protection throughout the counties.

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