Howard reinforces emergency services

Federal homeland security funds to help county pay for six specialty vehicles

October 12, 2005|By MELISSA HARRIS | MELISSA HARRIS,SUN REPORTER

Howard County has ordered millions of dollars of fire and public safety equipment that leaders say will help address safety and communication concerns in the event of a disaster.

Many of the six vehicles will replace run-down ones, and a few offer technologies that have never been used in the county.

Workers inside a new mobile communications hub will be able to view live footage from the department's helicopter for the first time, and the truck will be wired with the county's first mobile network that routes radio and cell phone communications over the Internet.

Chief Deputy Jeff King of the Department of Fire and Rescue Services said that this technology will help prevent the kinds of problems first responders encountered after Hurricane Katrina, in which communications networks were dependent on vulnerable ground infrastructure, rather than satellites.

"We're already making changes based on lessons learned from Katrina," he said.

Federal homeland security money will pay for the $750,000 communications vehicle, and Howard County will pay for maintenance.

Hurricane Katrina also taught firefighters lessons about another new piece of equipment. While in Louisiana, Howard County responders worked on Baltimore's new decontamination unit, which cleaned off people, equipment and rescuers after they emerged from polluted floodwaters.

Homeland security dollars will pay for an identical version of that $300,000 unit for Howard.

The Clarksville Volunteer Fire Department's heavy rescue truck contains the most innovative piece of equipment, a pump that can suck water out of hard-to-access sources, such as backyard pools and small lakes and streams, to fight fires. A crane mounted behind the cab of the $900,000 truck submerges the pump's rectangular, metal case.

Getting water in western Howard County - there are no public fire hydrants - has been a challenge for county firefighters. David W. Moynihan, a deputy chief for the Clarksville volunteer department, designed the pump. It is believed to be the only one of its kind in the nation.

Manufacturers have delivered two of the six trucks, a $765,000 fire engine with a 100-foot ladder and the heavy rescue truck. Volunteer and career firefighters are learning how to use them.

The remaining pieces - a 3,000-gallon water tanker for the West Friendship station costing $265,000, a truck costing $200,000 that refills firefighters' air tanks, the decontamination unit and the command center - are expected to arrive between November and July.

King said that the department is trying to build those pieces so that they can easily be upgraded.

"I'm a plain vanilla type of technical person," he said. "We're trying to avoid overkill with the number of buttons on these panels, but the technology changes so fast. We're hoping that the command center will remain up-to-date for three to five years."

Fire officials will take almost 20 trips to the Wisconsin-based manufacturers to oversee construction.

The trips, usually taken during the design, construction and final stages of the custom-built projects, are included in the vehicles' purchase price and ensure that tools fit in the compartments and that electrical systems function.

"There's no other way to do it," said Stuart D. McNicol, a division chief in Anne Arundel County.

"When you buy a car, you have some assurances. You know that the Department of Transportation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, all of these groups are looking out for your safety," he said.

"With these custom-built and highly complex pieces, it's easy for the company to make a mistake, and you're the one responsible for catching it."melissa.harris@baltsun.com

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