Fire safety in sprawl country

April 05, 1995

With the insistent expansion of residential growth into remote corners of suburbia, new homeowners may face a frightening prospect: lack of reliable, accessible water supplies to combat fires.

Firefighter groups are increasingly concerned about the dangerous problem -- and the failure of counties to require such a basic public safety facility from developers of properties distant from public waterlines and hydrants.

Of the Baltimore metropolitan area counties, only Anne Arundel requires developers to provide an accessible water supply within easy reach of homes. If natural sources are not at hand, 5,000-gallon underground storage tanks must be installed. The law has been in effect since 1978 and, despite the extra cost, has not hampered residential development.

But, as Evening Sun reporter Phyllis Brill discovered recently, other metropolitan counties make no provision for this important element of home protection. Sad to say, most prospective buyers eyeing a secluded exurban retreat don't think about it either.

Baltimore and Harford counties, where far-flung residential developments are most apparent, have virtually no water-supply requirements for new subdivisions. Harford is discussing a bill to require the installation of standpipes at bridges that are built or repaired. These unpressurized pipes would allow easy hookup of hoses by fire trucks on the bridge, and speed the flow of water to a burning dwelling.

Baltimore County firefighters, who have formed a committee to survey the extent of the problem, hope to see guidelines for future developments embodied in the county's master land use plan.

Howard has no law, but fire officials review subdivision site plans and can make recommendations for provision of water supplies. The rapid expansion of public water lines to new developments has also reduced the potential problem.

In Carroll County, meanwhile, new commercial/industrial and multi-unit residential developments must have a firefighting water supply within 600 feet, unless the area has public waterlines. But the law does not apply to subdivisions of single-family dwellings.

Firefighters know that quickly locating a good water supply can mean the difference between saving a burning house and losing it. It's a strong argument for counties to ensure that these vital water sources are available when they are needed.

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