Rural problems, rural solutions

In rural western Howard County, police and fire personnel devise ways to serve a growing population

April 17, 2005|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,SUN STAFF

With several ponds nearby and fire alarms in their homes, the residents of the Woodmark neighborhood in rural western Howard County never worried much about fire protection - until they met Jeffrey Hull.

Hull, a firefighter in Washington and a Woodmark resident, knew that the nearest hydrant was four miles away.

With money from the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services and help from his neighborhood association and a corporate donor, Hull got his community a dry hydrant - a nonpressurized metal spigot that enables firefighters to quickly draw water from a pond.

Dry hydrants are one of the many tools that firefighters, police and residents are using to improve public safety in western Howard, where a rural landscape and growing population pose challenges to emergency personnel.

"Our rural customers chose to live in that setting," said William Mould, a spokesman for the fire department. "They aren't expecting a 7-Eleven around the corner, their church or any other thing of convenience. And a fire station isn't there, either."

The fire and police departments are tackling growth issues with new buildings, better technology, more staff and innovative management.

Firefighters' response times improved last year after officials began publishing them in the department's newsletter to encourage competition, Mould said. The number of dry hydrants will continue to grow, and a new station in Glenwood and improvements to West Friendship's firehouse remain a part of the Chief Joseph A. Herr's long-term construction plan.

The county also is building a one-room satellite office for police inside the new community center in Glenwood, which will be the department's first outpost in western Howard.

"The workload doesn't justify additional resources right now, but the geography does," Police Chief G. Wayne Livesay said.

Police calls for service from western Howard dropped from 2003 to 2004, and fire department calls held steady, according to data provided by each department.

Residential false alarms were responsible for about 15 percent of all police incidents in western Howard last year. On average, an officer in the area responded to between three and five calls every 12 hours last year, according to police.

The workload is well below other areas - with western Howard commanding between 2 percent and 3.4 percent of countywide calls in 2004.

The issue, however, is not the number of calls, but how far police must travel to respond.

One officer is assigned to each of western Howard's three beats. Combined, they patrol 125 square miles, or 51 square miles more than the size of the city of Baltimore.

If one of those officers makes an arrest and transports the suspect to the county's booking facility in Jessup - 27 miles from Lisbon - that leaves two officers assigned to the region.

Pfc. Jennifer Reidy, a police spokeswoman, said that other officers from neighboring areas help compensate for absences.

It is unclear, however, exactly how long it takes for police to reach a victim's door. Howard's department has not compiled response times from last year, and officials could not find the 2003 report. A small sampling of emergency calls shows that response times average about seven minutes, ranging from one to 11 minutes for emergencies, Reidy said. When callers are not in danger, responses can take up to a half-hour.

"We may have to hold a routine call for vandalism while we respond to a true emergency, such as a robbery in progress," Livesay said.

The fire department tracks response times more closely than does the police force. It completed an analysis of areas that have the weakest response and fastest growth in 2003.

Since then, the three stations in western Howard have drastically improved their average response times, defined as the time between when the 911 call is received and when personnel arrive at the scene.

From 2003 to 2004, Station No. 5 in Clarksville cut response times for medical runs by 47 seconds on average to two minutes, 39 seconds, and for all other calls by three minutes, to five minutes, 13 seconds.

There is more that could be done. Political leaders in other counties have opted for more aggressive safety measures, such as requiring developers to install sprinklers in new single-family homes or place underground water tanks at the entrances to new subdivisions.

One of the greatest challenges for the fire department is large, wooded lots with homes set far back from the road and often perched atop hills, said volunteer Fire Chief Mickey Day.

Firefighters can't park their ladder trucks on steep inclines. Even if they did, Day said, they might not be able to reach the second-floor windows of some large houses.

And the distance between neighbors means that some fires are not spotted until it is too late.

That's what happened to John and Carol Dunlavey less than three weeks ago.

Their five-bedroom home on Guilford Road isn't visible from the road, and their driveway is more than a half-mile long.

The couple were out running errands when their home caught fire late in the afternoon of March 31. By the time a neighbor spotted it, 75 percent of the house was engulfed in flames.

"There's only one room left - the master bedroom - and it has smoke and water damage, and some walls are burned down," Carol Dunlavey said.

Last year, another family, located farther west near the Woodmark community, lost everything. Their $6 million mansion on Maryvale Court burned to the ground.

Tankers were used to douse the flames, and firefighters trucked in water from miles away, said Day, the volunteer chief.

Perhaps the only positive result of the fire was that it pushed Hull's community to complete the dry hydrant project.

"To use a word, it sparked some more interest in our project," said Steven Gershman, president of the Woodmark Community Association. "We were already moving forward, but the fire certainly caught our attention."

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