One image of a first responder is one of action — paramedics treating injuries, firefighters wielding hoses or prying open crashed cars with huge hydraulic pliers called the Jaws of Life to rescue people trapped inside.
But for Doug Simpkins, captain emeritus at the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department, one of the most important tasks a first responder has is one that most people do not see: waiting, on call, at the station.
Getting to the scene of a fire or an accident, Simpkins said, is "a matter of getting up immediately, getting up and getting out. So when you have a nice environment, more people will be available.”
At the Arbutus department, “we’re all volunteer,” Simpkins said. "I’ve been a member since 1970, and I haven’t made a dime yet.” Volunteers, he said, are not assigned shifts; the number of people at the station when a call comes in depends on how many volunteers decide to sign up for duty hours and spend their free time at the station.
The fire department has completed a $325,000 renovation project that station leaders hope will both encourage first responders to spend more time at the station, and make that time more enjoyable. The renovations started in May, were completed in August and will be unveiled Saturday at an open house.
Firehouse tours, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 23, will let the public “see what their donations have provided for the volunteer firemen who protect you."
Renovating living space in stations is “all about retention,” said Glenn Resnick, president of the Baltimore County Volunteer Firemen’s Association. “With our members, we’re asking them to sacrifice being with their family and sacrifice other things that they do.”
Remnick said the association commissioned a report three years ago from the Volunteer Firemen Insurance Services, which provides insurance and consulting services to emergency service organizations. The report recommended updates similar to Arbutus’ renovations for many of the county’s other stations, which were largely built in the 1950s and 1960s, he said.
Remnick said that at least three other stations in Baltimore County are renovating spaces this year to bring facilities up to modern standards and to appeal to a more technology-driven generation.
The renovations were funded in part by a $130,000 state grant. The rest, Simpkins said, was funded by fire company money, raised through donations and bingo nights.
“We just wanted to make it comfortable and livable,” Simpkins said. "It was habitable, now it’s livable.”
The Arbutus renovations, done by Mullen Contractors, gutted the first floor of the fire department, splitting the large space into smaller rooms that include a “day room” set up for watching DVDs, a kitchen, a dining room and separate bathrooms for men and women.
Now, firefighters can spend their hours at the station reclining in leather armchairs with cupholders while they watch movies. They can cook in a kitchen, outfitted with granite countertops and a commercial-grade oven — anything smaller, Simpkins said, and “people will bust it up.”
Women, who Simpkins said have been volunteering at the station since around 1980, now have their own bathroom. Station Capt. Norman Simpkins Jr. said there are 25 to 30 women volunteers.
Total membership at the Arbutus VFD is 267, but Doug Simpkins said that they have 60 to 75 active volunteers who run calls. “That’s the people we did this for,” he said.
One important aspect of the renovations, Simpkins said, was getting the station plugged in.
“It’s a technological world,” Simpkins said; to catch up with that world, they installed WiFi internet access throughout the building and added outlets in the center of the day room floor, so volunteers can plug in their devices, and the many students from the nearby University of Maryland, Baltimore County who volunteer there can do their homework.
Other features the renovations brought include a dining room with a large table branded with the department’s logo; a new control panel that can control lights and traffic signals all from one place when a call comes in; and a system of lights on the ceiling that will flash to indicate a call — red for a fire truck, blue for an ambulance, alternating colors for both.
Those lights, Simpkins said, flash five to eight times a day. The station’s ocation, near major roads like Interstate 95 and the Beltway, means that when accidents happen on those roads, the busy Arbutus station is called.
“You’ve got to explain to people that you might not need us today or tomorrow,” Simpkins said. "But when you do, we want to be there for you.”