Volunteer firefighter ranks dwindle Department worries about area coverage

September 24, 1996|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

People are moving to South Carroll in ever-increasing numbers, but few are volunteering at the local fire department.

The Sykesville-Freedom Volunteer Fire Department is calling for slower growth, more volunteers and greater financial support from the county.

Otherwise, it will not be able to protect the 27,600 residents in its response area.

"Right now, we can't guarantee a response and we cannot handle the population," said Dennis E. Beard, president of the volunteer company and a career fire-prevention specialist in Howard County. "I want to try to do something we didn't do 25 years ago, when we knew this growth was coming, and that is plan."

Since 1972, the population in the department's area has increased by more than 15,000, while the number of volunteers has dwindled to 35 active firefighters from nearly twice that. The department has two fire engines, two ambulances and one squad car.

"We probably should have four engines," Beard said. "People keep telling us to get more ambulances, too. But if we don't have drivers and technicians, what good is a vehicle? We need people to ride the equipment, and we need people to raise funds."

Bobby Ray Chesney, deputy chief, said the number of volunteers has not kept pace with growth. The department's volunteers handled 762 fire and rescue incidents last year.

"Since 1983, the rolls of volunteers have decreased 10 percent and demand has increased 48 percent," Chesney said. "We would love to get more volunteers, but, realistically, we know it's not going to happen."

Until the situation improves, the fire department has no choice but to oppose development, he said.

In a letter to the County Commissioners, Beard wrote, "Either more funds must be budgeted to cover the increase in services to this heavily populated area of the county, or greater controls over development must be put in place."

At the commissioners' office, the staff said it had no record of the letter, which Beard said was hand-delivered in June.

The county contributes $49,683 annually to Sykesville's emergency medical services fund. The department employs medical technicians and paramedics for day and late-night shifts during the week. Volunteers staff the remaining hours.

Last year, the Sykesville department added $15,000 for salaries to the county contribution and expects its share to be $40,000 this year. The department must raise that money through its carnival, bingos, hall rentals and other activities, which rely heavily on volunteer labor.

"Our auxiliary runs the bingos and caters many of those events," Beard said. "But they, too, are losing longtime members without taking in more new ones."

Chesney has recommended that the county Planning Commission deny three proposed developments in Eldersburg. They include a $3.7 million medical complex planned by Carroll County General Hospital in the Eldersburg Business Center, a Jiffy Lube on Route 32 and a 14-unit retirement community near the Liberty Reservoir.

"A certificate of inadequacy means many of us on the Planning Commission will consistently turn down a project," said Joseph M. Mettle, a planning commissioner.

County Commissioner Richard T. Yates, who also is on the Planning Commission, said the panel is taking the firefighters' concerns under advisement.

"Public safety is weighing heavily on their minds," Yates said. "We all know volunteers are declining. Paid is the only other option, but people are screaming now that their taxes are too high."

Yates estimates that a paid fire service would mean a tax increase 10 times as big as the commissioners enacted this year, which raises taxes 27 cents per $100 of assessed value.

"I hope we can do this through growth management instead and keep growth where it is now," he said.

Paid firefighters are not the only option, nor is halting commercial projects in South Carroll, Beard said. The answer lies in sound economic development, he said.

"If we could just create jobs here and people were working here, maybe then they would volunteer here," he said.

Pub Date: 9/24/96

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