A committee of paid and volunteer firefighters is collecting information on how creeks, swimming pools, ponds and other alternative sources are used to battle fires in Baltimore County in hopes of improving the county's fire protection rating - and possibly lowering insurance rates.
Compiling such information is a routine but critical exercise. The reason: Nearly half of the county has no access to fire hydrants.
That fact was starkly illustrated June 23, when firefighters used fire engines, tankers and pump trucks to shuttle water from the Patapsco River and a water main to extinguish a four-alarm fire at the Simkins Industries paper recycling plant in Catonsville, a historic complex built in the early 19th century.
"I think most people take it for granted that we'll have water when we arrive on a scene," said Division Chief Danelle England-Dansicker. "They're used to seeing hydrants on the corner."
The reality is that county firefighters rely on alternative water sources, including rivers and pools, with astonishing regularity.
In addition to the Simkins fire, firefighters used water from two ponds and a swimming pool to douse flames that nearly destroyed the historic Manor Tavern in Monkton in August. And crews siphoned water from Bear Creek to cool down mulch piles at a Dundalk recycling plant that burned for three days, also in August.
"A little old babbling brook may have enough water to supply us with 12,000 to 15,000 gallons of water," said Lt. Mark Gardner, who works at the Texas fire station and volunteers at the Hereford Volunteer Fire Company.
Gardner serves on the county volunteer firefighters' association's water resource committee, which - working with paid firefighters - constantly revises maps of every possible water supply in the county.
The committee hopes to submit data by the end of the summer to the Insurance Service Organization, an independent agency that sets property insurance rates, to improve the county's fire protection rating.
County laws require new developments in rural areas outside the hydrant system to install underground tanks. Those laws, along with better training and new equipment, could cause home and commercial insurance rates to drop next year.
"Commercial developments will save the most because they are at higher risks for fires. But it could be significant savings for residents, even in the urban areas," Gardner said.
The county expects to receive $20,000 in federal grants to install pipes in the northern and western parts of the county that should make tapping into natural water sources easier. Called dry hydrants, the pipes have filters that help strain sediment and debris, said Gardner.
But even without the pipes, fire crews have pumps they can attach to intake hoses that take in the water - a process known as drafting.
Engines and tanker trucks also have pumps that help pressurize the water.
A tanker strike team - consisting of four fire engines that carry 1,000 gallons of water each, a large tanker with a 5,000-gallon capacity, and a pump truck - can provide enough water to battle most house fires, England-Dansicker said.
Baltimore County isn't the only jurisdiction that relies on alternative water sources. Most of Anne Arundel County, for example, doesn't have hydrants, said Division Chief John M. Scholz.
To fight fires in the southern half of Anne Arundel, which is primarily rural, firefighters rely on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. Each fire station also updates local maps of underground water storage tanks, Scholz said.
It's easier, however, to pump water out of an underground storage tank. And when streams and creeks dry up - as they did last summer during the drought - it helps to have an easily accessible source of water, Gardner said.
After a fire destroyed historic Sparks Elementary School in 1995, the county began to install underground storage tanks at public schools, parks and other accessible locations, such as Padonia and Falls roads.
"The Sparks fire was a wake-up call to the leadership that we needed to address this," said Claud Gamble, a Jacksonville volunteer and chairman of the water resource committee. "We had a master plan. And since the 1980s, we had been working on coordinating our efforts so that [when] we came to a fire without a hydrant, we'd all be using the same approach and we're training our people the same way."
Now, classes are offered year-round to train firefighters how to manage water. There are nearly 40 underground water storage tanks with a capacity of at least 30,000 gallons in the county, from Manor Shopping Center in Jacksonville to North Point State Park in Dundalk.
Scores of 12,000-gallon tanks also have been installed by developers to meet the county fire prevention code and more than 100 others are planned, including a 30,000-gallon tank that has been installed and was tested in Boring last week.
"We're extremely proud of what we've done," Gamble said. "But we can always do more. There's always room for improvement."