Pull of tradition, tug of change

Changes in firefighting are affecting the way volunteers and career personnel operate


When firefighters in Savage pull out of their box-shaped brick station on Lincoln Street, they must drive on narrow residential roads and over three trapezoid-shaped speed bumps to get to their area's main artery, U.S. 1. Installed over firefighters' opposition, the bumps have snapped springs on every one of the station's firetrucks, taking them out of service for days and costing thousands of dollars to repair.

Howard County plans to move the Savage station and two others closer to main roadways and population centers - and away from speed bumps - during the next three years.

Aging facilities that are too small to handle modern equipment and the desire to improve response times is driving the relocations, but the proposals in County Executive James N. Robey's 2007 capital budget also have disappointed union leaders and worried some volunteers, who would lose ownership of their buildings during the change.

The Savage volunteer station would move to U.S. 1 and Corridor Road. The West Friendship volunteer station would move from Frederick Road to the southeast corner of Route 99 and Route 32. And the county's station on Banneker Road in Columbia would move to an undetermined location in Town Center near Merriweather Post Pavilion.

Some volunteers in Savage are worried about abandoning tradition as they leave a facility that they own in the heart of the historic town for a county-owned one closer to industrial centers. Union leaders are disappointed that a new "east Columbia" station near Meadowridge Road and Route 100 has been pushed back another year and criticize county officials for "ceding too much control" to volunteers.

"We believe it's more than appropriate in 2006 for the fire chief to have control over the day-to-day operations of the entire fire department," said Rich Ruehl, president of the Howard County Professional Firefighters Association. "He needs to be able to dictate how many paid firefighters work at a volunteer station and what equipment those firefighters use and have."

Most citizens do not distinguish among volunteer and paid firefighters, called "career" personnel. But historically, these groups have been at odds.

And in Howard County, as in other half-rural, half-urban communities in the country, there is a push and pull for control as the county begins to replace older stations amid changes in firefighting.

For starters, fire equipment is growing larger, more complex and more expensive. At Savage, the volunteers had to cut down and rotate an exhaust pipe on a fire engine so that it would fit inside the station.

When trucks are parked in certain spots, some volunteers can't open their lockers.

The volunteers have changed, too. The older generation often lived around the firehouse, working on farms, or in factories and stores.

However, their children - volunteer firefighting is often passed down from generation to generation - no longer do so, in some instances because they can't afford skyrocketing Howard County home prices.

Howard County Fire and Rescue Chief Joseph Herr and James N. Irvin, the county public works director, defend the need for volunteers.

They save the county money, but more important, Herr said, is that during large-scale emergencies, such as Hurricane Isabel, the department couldn't function without volunteers.

"The volunteers ensured that we had everything covered during Isabelle," Herr said. "They provided a whole lot of staff and service for free. That goes on at some level every day."

But career firefighters have often believed that volunteers stifle demand for union jobs. The angrier ones question the volunteers' skills and dedication.

Some point to the fact that Howard County career personnel are increasingly being asked to staff or fill-in at volunteer stations - Savage has five career firefighters working around-the-clock. And they note lavish amenities at the Clarksville volunteer station, calling it a "Taj Mahal."

"We know that volunteer participation has been on the decline for the last 15 to 20 years, and we're not trying to hasten their disappearance," Ruehl said. "But the future is here. The department must be able to guarantee the same staffing and service levels at 3 a.m. as we do at 3 p.m. And the county needs to decide those staffing and minimum service levels; not the volunteers."

Rather than squabble over control, Savage Volunteer Chief Francis Mowbray prefers to focus on how badly he needs a new station. The current one was built in 1937.

Some cabinets in the kitchen are missing doors. The lockers for career firefighters are in the building's primary hallway. The thin carpet in the combination living and exercise room is ragged and torn.

Ceiling tiles had to be removed to fix a recent roof leak. Other ceiling tiles have brown, circular water stains. The linoleum floor is so scratched that some tiles appear more gray than white. And the trucks must squeeze into the aging facility, leaving just a few inches between one fire engine's roof and the garage door.

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