Robey lauded on safety facility

Firefighters back plan for $17.2 million structure

Others question the spending

$6.4 million allocated in budget blueprint

April 02, 2003|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

Howard County firefighters applauded yesterday Howard County Executive James N. Robey's proposal to fund a new training center in Cooksville, saying it could help them recruit employees and save time. But others are expressing concerns about the spending.

On Monday, Robey allocated $6.4 million toward the $17.2 million safety training center, to be located on a 30-acre site at the edge the county's Alpha Ridge Landfill, just west of Marriottsville Road.

The county's firefighters now train at sites throughout the state, often spending two hours loading equipment and driving between Howard County and places such as Millersville, in Anne Arundel County.

The center also would be used by county police.

The training facility was first proposed in January last year. The County Council provided $4.2 million in this year's capital budget for design work and site preparation. The $6.4 million in the capital budget for the coming fiscal year would allow construction to begin.

Police Chief Wayne Livesay, who once called the training center a "dire need" for the county, did not return calls seeking comment yesterday on the proposal by Robey, a former police chief. Police spokeswoman Sherry Llewellyn said she could not discuss the capital allocation, which must be approved by the County Council.

Robey's decision to commit millions to the training center was by no means certain in a year when county tax revenue and state aid are expected to be down sharply and spending requests for schools and other projects are extraordinarily high.

Some politicians are questioning whether the money could be better spent for other purposes.

Asked about the training center Monday, state Sen. Robert H. Kittleman said, "Maybe a school is more important."

Del. Warren E. Miller, a western county Republican, also voiced concern.

"We don't have the greatest economic picture right now. ... And if there wasn't a state facility [a few miles away], I could see the need for a new facility. But right now, I have to question the approach," said Miller, referring to the state training facility in Sykesville, near the Howard-Carroll County border, where local police and firefighters sometimes train.

Fire officials say that it is difficult to book training time in Sykesville and that it takes time to load equipment and transport it to the facility.

The allocation "is probably one of the most important decisions for this county," said Chief Joseph Herr of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services. "We would have a hard time growing without our training center."

Howard has the most limited training facilities of any county that has professional emergency responders, according to the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute. As a result, firefighters must sometimes spend as many as three days a week driving to training sites outside the county, fire officials say.

The new center would have a two-story training building, a classroom building, a firing range, police dog training area and a "burn" building that firefighters could use to simulate blazes.

The facility could help firefighters recruit students, Herr said. The department has an agreement with county high schools to train sophomores to become paramedics, and it will need a training site by next year to instruct the students, Herr said.

"If we don't have the ability to train in the county, we'll have to go back to schools and say, `Hey, you're going to have to help us figure out a way to cart these students around every day,' " Herr said.

Richard M. Krieg, chairman of the Howard Community Emergency Response Network, a committee of law enforcement leaders, firefighters and volunteers that develops emergency response plans, said the training center could be a big help to members of the county's new Citizens Corps -- volunteers who would assist police and firefighters in major emergencies.

The volunteers, who number about 100, would be allowed to train at the facility, Krieg said, noting that they would need intense training because Howard County is close to Washington, Baltimore, the National Security Agency and Fort Meade.

"You really have to have an extraordinarily high degree of training to deal with all the possible threats," said Krieg.

"The more you can train, the more you can reduce your response time," said Krieg, who is also president of Horizon Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to county health issues. "And that's only going to benefit the average citizen."

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