What if there were a fire?

Volunteers: In Anne Arundel County, the local fire station is no longer the heart of the community.

June 06, 2000|By Laura Barnhardt and Amy Oakes | Laura Barnhardt and Amy Oakes,SUN STAFF

No one remembers exactly when the carnival that benefited the firefighters stopped coming to town. Or when the volunteers stopped cooking up their suppers every night at the fire hall, instead making the occasional fast-food run. Or when having enough volunteers was more than a memory.

But in areas such as southern Anne Arundel County, the decline of the community-based volunteer fire stations also began without much notice.

As volunteers retired and the ranks of new ones dwindled, they were largely being replaced by full-time county employees until, finally, the fire hall was no longer the social center of the community.

"I remember just eight years ago, moms were always bringing their kids by to look at the fire engines," said Lt. Bobby Howlin, chief of the Woodland Beach Volunteer Fire Company in Edgewater.

"We were always getting little care packages of cakes and cookies people would drop off for us. You don't see that much anymore."

The trend is nationwide, public safety officials say, with fewer people having the time or inclination to answer the middle-of-night calls and battle multi- alarm blazes. Here and elsewhere, they would rather leave that chore to paid firefighters.

In Riva, the volunteers saw their ranks shrink from 50 to two in the past 20 years. The result hasn't been so much a threat to public safety, but rather a loss of a way of life as South County's once-rural, close-knit villages became more of a bedroom community.

For folks in Shady Side, the days of families gathering every evening at the fire station are long gone, said Dennis Skinner, a volunteer at Avalon Shores Fire Station since 1968.

"Back then, South County was a rural area," Skinner said. "There wasn't a whole lot to do. It was one big family."

In Galesville, coming of age was once being old enough to ride the engine without parental guidance, said Nathan Covington Scotten IV, better known as "Cov."

Now, he said, "the kids don't want to do it anymore. It takes too much discipline for them with all the new training."

In Deale, Melvin and Margaret Whittington embody the history of volunteer firefighters in South County.

Melvin Whittington, 80, is the only surviving charter member of the Deale Volunteer Fire Department, and his wife of 59 years is one of the founders of the department's Ladies Auxiliary.

Back in the 1940s, residents in Deale had been talking about starting a fire station. The closest fire departments were in Galesville and North Beach in Calvert County, and in an area defined by farms and isolated properties, a fire could be devastating.

"We had absolutely no protection," Margaret Whittington said.

So her husband and about 20 other men in the community got together and organized a volunteer department in 1946. They bought an old 1936 open cab fire truck named "Nellie Belle" and kept it in a garage at Route 256 and Drum Point Road until they built a station house down the street.

"Everyone worked for free," she said.

From its inception, the firehouse became a center of the Deale community. Bingo and fund-raising dinners were held there, and teen-age boys often spent time hanging around the station.

"They'd just sit around and tell jokes," she said. "You don't see that today."

Maurice "Snooks" Carr, treasurer of the Riva Volunteer Fire Company, has seen the change, too, as the number of certified volunteers dwindled in 20 years from 50 to two in his department.

Most people aren't willing to spend months in training and do the same work that others are getting paid for, he said. "It's a hard sell. They just don't have the time."

They don't have as much interest, either.

Although the Riva company sends out an annual fund-raising letter, Carr said, there are no more pancake breakfasts or carnivals.

The Woodland Beach company will have a carnival this week. But Howlin said the area has grown so much that "many of the new people may not realize there's a fire station back here."

The Woodland Beach company is doing well by comparison. There are 20 volunteers certified as firefighters and first responders, and more might be on the way thanks to local interest in a cadet program that trains teen-agers in firefighting for school credit.

Still, Howlin said, recruiting volunteers is difficult:

"It's like they say, you have to spend money to make money. Well, we need volunteers to get the volunteers."

Finding volunteers isn't easy anywhere, said John Long, president of the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighters Association.

In the most active departments across the county, it's more than community service, it's a family tradition.

At volunteer fire companies in the northern part of the county, the average number of volunteers certified to respond to calls is 37. In South County, the average is 12.

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