County installing water tanks in rural west to better fight fires

For as long as 26-year Clarksville volunteer firefighter Dave Monihan can remember, the lack of reliable water supply in west Howard County has been a problem.

"Water supply has always been a critical issue," said Monihan, who joined the department as a teenager in the 1980s and is now the volunteer deputy chief of the 5th District Volunteer Fire Department. "You can take all the tools, knowledge, and the most highly skilled personnel to a fire you want, but it doesn't do anything if you don't have water."

Western Howard County, like most other rural areas, is not connected to a municipal water supply. This means it must rely on less-reliable water supplies, like lakes and ponds, when water tanks from responding fire trucks are depleted.

That is changing, however. Thanks to a county-funded program, Monihan and other west county firefighters are finally getting a reliable water source in the form of more than 100 30,000-gallon underground water tanks.

The project's coordinator, Lt. Pat LePore, said the fire suppression tanks, currently being installed at strategic points around west Howard County, will provide firefighters with something they've never had before.

"It allows us a quick access to a known quantity of water," LePore said. "We know there is a designated 30,000 gallon source ready to go, and if it's close enough, we can treat it like a fire hydrant."

According to LePore, the first tank was installed in 2006 near the intersection of Triadelphia Mill Road and Highland Road, in Clarksville.

In mid-August, the department's 14th tank was installed off of Carriage Mill Road, in Woodbine.

Through 2017, $9 million has been committed to the project, which is funded in the county's capital improvements budget. The county has set aside $1.25 million per year, enough to install from five to 10 tanks each year, from 2013 through 2017.

If funding continues, the department will have 104 tanks located throughout the county by 2020.

LePore said the implementation plan divides the western part of the county into a series of one-square mile blocks, and prioritizes installation by population density, proximity to other static water supplies and the nearest fire station.

When completed, the county will have one 30,000 gallon tank within one square mile of any possible incident.

"When this program is completely done, we'll have the closest model to a municipal system you can have in a non-municipal area," Monihan said. "It greatly enhances the probability of delivering viable water in the time period needed to keep a fire from escalating."

Monihan said the tanks have already made a difference to local firefighters.

"I've seen there is a more efficient response knowing that there is an identified source within a reasonable distance," Monihan said. "It takes the anxiety of a lack of water source off the table."

Although LePore and Monihan said the tanks are a vast improvement over the previous water supply, they agreed that nothing is as effective as a municipal water system.

"These are still static sources, and there are always challenges associated with water supply that isn't municipal," Monihan said. "(But) these are giving us the best potential for maximum efficiency."

Keeping it local

Dayton resident Paul Robertson said it was "comforting" when a fire suppression tank was installed near his neighborhood off of Howard Road about one year ago.

"It's a good program the county is doing," Robertson said. "It's providing an opportunity for Howard County residents to have a safer environment, and in the event of a fire, reduce property damage or even help save a life."

Robertson is just one of many residents to have a tank installed in his neighborhood over the past half decade. But he's also the president of Tanks Direct, a tank manufacturing and installation company based in Laurel that has helped provide and install tanks for the county.

Robertson said the company, previously based in Howard County, employs a lot of county residents.

"It's kind of near and dear to us," Robertson said. "Being western Howard County natives, working with the county doing things to help life safety."

Tanks Direct has helped supply nearly half of the tanks for the county, and was awarded its most recent contract to install four tanks this summer.

In addition to Tanks Direct, the county has also used other local tank companies including: W. F Wilson, in Elkridge, Highland Turf Inc., in Finksburg, and Utilities Unlimited, in Sykesville.

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