The English Consul Volunteer Fire Department has served the community from its Baltimore Highlands building since 1949, but its facilities have been inadequate for decades, according to volunteer leadership.
Volunteers are “pouring money into this place” to keep it afloat, said Kim Maddox, vice president of administration for the company.
“The 140 of us that are here, we give our all. It’s not enough,” said Consul volunteer Doug Burns.
The company, which sits between the English Consul and Baltimore Highlands neighborhoods, is breaking even in its revenues and expenses, bringing in just enough to cover its share of operational costs and maintenance, Maddox said.
Given languishing public donations, “minimal county funding” and a tight budget, the company launched a GoFundMe page in October to raise $1 million to expand the company’s engine bay, bunk room, upgrade showers and add a training room, Maddox said. So far, the campaign has raised $120.
“As much as we bring in, we pay out,” Maddox said. “That’s why we need this fund drive. We’re keeping our heads above water, but there’s no extra.”
In its 75th year, English Consul had responded to over 2,300 calls as of Oct. 23, and answers about 3,000 calls a year on average, said formerChief Frank March. Its first response area covers 1 square mile along Annapolis Road, running from the Anne Arundel County line to the Baltimore City outskirts, and from the Patapsco River to the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
With an application for state funding heading to the General Assembly for the 2020 session that starts in January, the English Consul Volunteer Fire Association must raise at least $500,000 by June 1 in order to receive the matching state appropriation.
The competitive capital grant would not cover the full cost of the renovations, estimated at $1.5 million to $2 million, Maddox said.
English Consul has spent $229,500 since January of this year on operational costs, fundraising events and equipment maintenance and replacement, March said. Most of that money has been raised by the company itself.
The county added $1.5 million this fiscal year to its six-year capital budget of $6.5 million for volunteer groups’ building projects, but preference is typically given to volunteer departments that merge, and according to the county budget, that additional money has been earmarked for a new White Marsh Volunteer Fire Station.
The company hopes to bring in $50,000 a year in revenues from its social hall rentals and other fundraising events, like its crab feast, Maddox said, but donations over the years have waned. The Consul’s annual mailers, sent to 1,700 homes in the community, once brought in $14,600 in 1997, March said. By 2018, that figure had dropped to $6,630.
The most critical part of the renovations is to expand the company’s engine bay, which cannot accommodate the Consul’s four pieces of apparatus and equipment.
Firefighters must shuffle sideways past two engines to grab their turnout gear, often dressing in the back of the engine as they respond to emergency calls or pulling it out of the bay so they have room to get dressed, Palmer said.
Beyond the size constraints, safety and health concerns necessitate the renovations, he added.
“There isn’t sufficient ventilation” in the bay, Maddox said. “All the diesel fumes” track upstairs to the bunk room, which sits just above the garage.
With increasing attention from Maryland fire departments on firefighters’ exposure to carcinogens and increased risk of cancer, the company is seeking to build a decontamination room, which it currently lacks. While career companies have the resources to buy extractors and second sets of turnout gear, English Consul members currently hose contaminants off their turnout gear, usually at the scene of the fire, Maddox said.
The company has also had to pay for equipment damage when opening the door of one engine hits another, on top of increasing costs for equipment maintenance and replacement, which use up a majority of the company’s revenues, Maddox said.
The bay can uncomfortably fit two engines, a brush truck and an ambulance with the company’s bus parked on a narrow driveway outside. The bay hasn’t been upgraded since its construction in 1951, and the last major renovation to the 5,000-square-foot building was adding a second floor with the bunk room 56 years ago, March said.
“We have to have almost specially-designed apparatus to fit it into the engine bay,” Palmer said. “We’re very limited with the equipment we can buy — we first to have to say, ‘what gets in the building and of that, what can we afford?’
Fire engines have grown in size since the bay was built, and the company follows standards set by the National Fire Protection Association that require fire apparatuses to be replaced 25 years from their manufacturing year, Palmer said; but the company must be selective in replacing its engines, often opting for older, used apparatuses that can fit beneath the bay’s 10-foot-high garage door.
A 2010 concept plan drafted by architectural firm Manns Woodward Studios — which the English Consul officials plan to reference for future renovations — shows expansion of the bay would require a variance to extend it to be 1 foot from the property boundary on the side and rear.
After hiring Manns Woodward for the design strategy in 2010, Maddox said the company quickly learned the renovations were not “economically feasible” at the time.
Renovation plans were set back in motion with the prospect of state funding through a bond request from Del. Terri Hill, a Democrat who represents parts of Baltimore and Howard counties.
“Usually, firehouses are able to get some funding, [but] it may not be the full half a million” requested by the company, Hill said. “Often, the ask is not matched,” given that jurisdictions are vying for limited state capital funding for multiple projects, she said.
Hill said that funding is contingent on plans showing the construction is “shovel-ready,” and funds that are granted must be spent within a few years.
The facility “may have been appropriate in 1951, but it’s just not anymore,” she said, adding that it poses functional and safety issues for the company.