Between recruit classes, volunteer courses, in-service training, recertification classes and advancement programs, training runs from 7 a.m. to nearly 11 p.m. on weekdays at the Anne Arundel County Fire Academy in Millersville. They knock off a few hours earlier on weekends.
Recertification classes for emergency medical personnel are sometimes shifted to firehouses because of the space crunch.
The 50th recruit class — which started last week and is the first recruit class since 2009 — is having its human resources work done at the Earleigh Heights Volunteer Fire Company's hall in Severna Park.
Why? Because the Fire Department's training facility has no place large enough to accommodate 74 recruits filling out paperwork, plus the county personnel staff.
This class is the first of five back-to-back recruit classes running through the training facility, which was last expanded in the late 1980s.
While he calls the training facilities "adequate," the county's new fire chief, Michael Cox Jr., acknowledges the academy is bursting at the seams.
"Our department has grown, and we are quickly outgrowing the facility," he said.
Of four classrooms at the fire academy, one isn't in the building — it's in an old portable classroom that the county school system didn't want two decades ago. Storage sheds abound.
The "dollhouse," a mock home where fires were extinguished by recruits for more than 40 years, hasn't been used for at least five years since the structure was deemed unsafe. A replacement built nearby is used for training.
The metal mini-mart, another fire training structure, leaks during storms, and there's isn't enough space to teach recruits to drive fire trucks.
But the main building, Cox said, where removing a divider between two classrooms creates one that can hold more than five dozen students, is in good shape, down to its lockers and shower facilities.
The campus of about 10 acres was spacious when it opened its doors in the mid-1960s in what was then a sparsely populated area. By the late 1980s, when an addition nearly doubled the size of classroom and office space, between 300 and 400 paid county firefighters and 200 to 300 volunteers were being taught every year.
"We almost doubled since then," Cox said. The department is authorized for 743 uniformed firefighters, and now has 41 vacancies, with more expected.
Keith Whalen, president of the firefighters union, said modernizing and improving facilities is "overdue. … I don't think it's big enough."
"It's adequate to train new officers to become firefighters. But it is certainly not what I would call the preferred setup when you look at what jurisdictions off comparable size offer in training," said County Council member Jamie Benoit, a Crownsville Democrat.
The situation has led the County Council to ask County Executive Laura Neuman to look into improvements for both public safety academies — fire and police — including exploring the possibility of a shared site. Officials say replacing the police academy alone would cost up to $10 million.
Benoit said both academies could benefit from modern classroom technology, and the county probably could find a site where some facilities, such as a single building with classrooms for both, would be less costly than two.
Council Chairman Jerry Walker, a Gambrills Republican, agreed that a combined site should be considered.
Howard County, for example, has its police and fire academies at one Marriottsville site, where the two agencies share some areas of a single building: a conference area that can hold up to about 250 people, a gym and lunchroom, said Jackie Kotei, a Howard County Fire Department spokeswoman.
Neuman said she expects to tour the fire academy in the fall and take part in a firefighting program so that she can assess it beyond reports and others' recommendations.
"I need to see it for myself," she said.
Last month, after a tour, she called the police academy in Davidsonville, built at a Cold War-era Nike missile site, "deplorable," and said it needed to be rebuilt.
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