Fire concerns may slow growth Emergency services would be strained, area officials say

September 01, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Concerns about fire safety, especially about water pressure and the ability of volunteers to respond quickly to emergencies, may do what county government has been unable to do -- slow growth in South Carroll.

With a population in Eldersburg that has increased by 21 percent, to 22,405, since 1990, local fire officials say the county should put the brakes on commercial and residential development, which is straining the volunteer Sykesville-Freedom District Volunteer Fire Department.

"We cannot guarantee a response," said Bobby Ray Chesney, Sykesville-Freedom's deputy chief, who is a career firefighter in Baltimore County. "Day and late-night hours are the most difficult for volunteers to staff."

Among the first casualties could be a $3.7 million medical complex, which Carroll County General Hospital is planning for the Eldersburg Business Center. Chesney has cited inadequate water supply and pressure in denying certification for the 30,000-square-foot center, slated to join a dozen tenants in the business park at Progress Way and Route 32.

Without a certificate of adequacy from the fire department, the project -- which is scheduled for review by the county's Planning and Zoning Commission this month -- may not win approval from the development oversight panel that is now controlled by slow-growth advocates. The commission relies on assessments from emergency services, schools, and public works to make its decisions on new developments.

"I go exclusively by certificates of adequacy," said Joseph H. Mettle, a commission member who has been an outspoken proponent of growth controls.

Still, County Commissioner Richard T. Yates, who also sits on the seven-member Planning and Zoning Commission, worries that denying projects based on inadequate public facilities might force the county to spend more on improving roads, schools, fire service or other services.

"If we deny development, I am afraid the courts will tell us to put in the necessary equipment to alleviate inadequacies," said Yates. "That only means more grief for taxpayers."

Officials at the Westminster hospital say the Eldersburg center will provide offices for primary-care physicians and specialists and a blood-test laboratory. It will be within a few blocks of a 24,000-square-foot office, which Sinai Hospital is building.

The Eldersburg center "is a really important project for the

hospital and the community," said Gill Chamblin, hospital spokeswoman. "We are trying to do everything we can to get it planned."

"Engineering reviews conducted by the county have indicated no problems with the adequacy of the water supply to our site," Chamblin said, pointing to an Aug. 8 memo from the county's office of emergency services approving the project with minor improvements to the building's sprinkler system.

In the meantime, Chesney and other volunteers have been randomly testing hydrants -- South Carroll has about 500 -- to assess flow and pressure.

It took Chesney and three volunteers nearly 15 minutes Tuesday to open one of two hydrants on Progress Way, opposite the site proposed for the medical center. They used a mallet, hammer and finally an ax on a hydrant wrench to get the line open.

"It was clear the hydrant had had no maintenance," said Chesney, who says that most area hydrants need servicing.

The county inspects twice annually its 650 hydrants, which all meet design standards, said Wayne Lewns, chief of the county bureau of utilities.

"We hook gauges right up to the hydrants," said Lewns. "The pressure varies between 60 and 80 pounds, and we are satisfied with that."

That water pressure can serve new development "or we wouldn't be certifying it," Lewns said.

The Freedom water system has a daily capacity of 3 million gallons, but is "nowhere near" that demand, he said. Three water boosting stations -- a fourth is planned on Martz Road -- maintain pressure at necessary levels, Lewns said. Two, 1-million-gallon tanks store water for emergencies.

Last summer, a combination of dry weather and high use caused water reserves in Eldersburg to dip below average, but residents "were very receptive to requests to conserve," said Lewns. This summer, steady rains have prevented shortages.

But Tuesday, when Chesney's crew opened the hydrant, the water pressure registered on the engine gauges for several minutes was less than 50 pounds -- "not much at all and this is a main coming into an industrial park," said Chesney.

Another 15 minutes passed before pressure reached 1,000 gallons a minute, enough to push it through the nozzle atop a ladder 25 feet high and combat a house fire.

"We would be in trouble in a major fire," said Chesney. "We would max this hydrant out."

Beyond questions about fire safety, Chesney worries about an increasing number of ambulance calls. Emergency calls, particularly from the many Sykesville facilities that house the elderly, have increased 20 percent this year and are straining the all-volunteer company, he said.

"It is not just a case of closing the barn door after the cow is out," Chesney said. "This cow is mooing in our faces."

Pub Date: 9/01/96

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