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Talk of closing volunteer stations a concern in Lansdowne

First responders from the English Consul and Lansdowne volunteer fire departments joined other Baltimore County companies to practice techniques during an ice and water rescue training seminar in January at Hillcrest Park.
First responders from the English Consul and Lansdowne volunteer fire departments joined other Baltimore County companies to practice techniques during an ice and water rescue training seminar in January at Hillcrest Park.(Staff photo by Brian Krista)

Bernie Smith, 77, has spent the past 60 years of his life volunteering at the Lansdowne Volunteer Fire Department, following a tradition of service begun by his father.

He grew up in the firehouse; his parents, three brothers and four sisters were all members at some point. Smith now serves as vice president of the organization.

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"It's part of our family tradition ... this is where you went," Smith said, seated in the station on Lavern Avenue, the third oldest in the county having been established in 1902.

A study commissioned by the Baltimore County Volunteer Firemen's Association recommending the merger of the Lansdowne and English Consul volunteer fire departments and the closure of the Violetville Volunteer Fire Department could threaten that tradition.

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The report recommends the closure of two other volunteer fire departments and the merger of 13 others into five.

It has caused alarm for those at the Violetville department, which could face closure in June when the fiscal year ends, according to company president Charles Weber Jr., 42.

"We've been around for 108 years. Members have been family generations here — it's devastating to the department," said Weber, a volunteer at Violetville since he was 16. "We're a small community but we put ourselves out there for the community in any way that we can."

Weber is a third generation volunteer firefighter. His father Charles Weber Sr. died in the line of duty serving his community. "He would want us to keep the company open," Weber said.

The firehouses encompass much of the history of their communities.

The English Consul department on Michigan Avenue was incorporated in 1945, making it the 21st oldest station in the county. The Violetville department, with a station on Benson Avenue, was established in 1909 and is the sixth oldest in the county, while the Arbutus department, established in 1937, is the 15th oldest.

Derek Bowser, chief of the Lansdowne volunteers, said he wants to keep the station intact.

"I don't think the community has anything to worry about — as long as I'm here, I'll do anything in my power to make sure we'll be here for another 100 years," Bowser said.

Departments see their operations, which also provide opportunities to socialize, as the center of their communities.

Close to home

Moses Rodriguez, chaplain of the English Consul department, said residents want their firefighters and donations to stay in their respective communities.

"Firefighting is different than other programs — people in Baltimore Highlands are territorial," said Rodriguez, who also serves as president of the Baltimore Highlands Community Association. "When tragedy takes place in a neighborhood, people want to take care of their neighbors, but when something happens across town people are less likely to help out."

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Leaders of the volunteer departments at Lansdowne, English Consul and Arbutus declined to comment directly on the report because they had not discussed it with their members.

John McDowell, president of the Baltimore County Volunteer Firemen's Association, would not release the report.

"At this time, it's not available to the public until is fully vetted by our leadership," he said.

McDowell, who is also president of the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department, said the county association's executive board decided to commission the study, which was supported by membership of the individual 33 companies

"This study makes a recommendation, but there is so much that has to go into that," Smith said. "You have to find a piece of property, you have to find money to build a new fire station to form this new fire company and you have to look at the time of response it would take the members to get to that station."

According to numbers reported by the individual fire companies, last year Arbutus responded to a total of 3,891 emergency and fire calls; Lansdowne responded to 2,238 calls; English Consul responded to 1,269 calls; and Violetville responded to more than 500 calls.

Arbutus is the second busiest department, behind Owings Mills, in the county.

"This report is a wake up call for some of these companies," said Doug Simpkins, who recently retired as captain of the Arbutus volunteer department after 24 years of service.

Volunteer firefighters said merging and closing departments could cause a decreased emergency response time. National regulations require firefighters to respond to calls within eight minutes, said Capt. Norman Simpkins, commanding officer of the Arbutus department.

Bowser, of the Lansdowne department, said if his department were to merge with Baltimore Highlands, "At times the community would be, I think, sold short with merging fire companies."

"Instead of serving one community now, you're basically serving two whole larger areas out of one facility," Smith said.

Brian Bailey, a board member of the Lansdowne Improvement Association, said merging the two companies could be beneficial.

"If Lansdowne and English Consul were forced to close down, and a new state-of-the-art facility were built to serve both communities, it may be a benefit to the community," Bailey said.

The departments, which are independent fire companies, are funded by community donations along with county and state money.

The county provides about $7 million per year to support volunteer stations, including incentives to companies that provide emergency medical care, as well as grants and subsidies for equipment and utilities, said Elise Armacost, a Baltimore County Fire Department spokeswoman.

There are 33 volunteer fire stations, and those firefighters work side-by-side with county firefighters from 25 stations.

Working together

A merger between Lansdowne and English Consul has been discussed before, although never formally, Smith said.

First District Councilman Tom Quirk, who represents Baltimore Highlands, Lansdowne and Arbutus, said he was still reviewing the study and felt it was premature to comment.

"Violetville, Lansdowne and Baltimore Highlands are very close together. Part of their study was looking at the proximity of the three departments," Quirk said. "There is probably room for synergy — it's something the volunteers need to work out themselves."

The operating budget of both stations, which are less than 2.5 miles from each other, is roughly $200,000 each year, commanding officers said.

Lansdowne has a slightly higher membership with 60 active members, while English Consul has 55 active members.

Both stations already work together as a team, responding to calls in both communities, said Frank March, chief of the English Consul department.

McDowell said volunteer fire companies across the nation are experiencing a decline in support.

"People today have a lot of activities going on, so you're competing for people's time when they have jobs, kids, and their time is limited," McDowell said, adding that the volunteer companies are competing with churches, senior centers and other volunteer organizations.

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"It's something that we're going to review, to determine what is best for the citizens of Baltimore County. It will be months until a decision is made and a course of action is decided," McDowell said.

Volunteer fire companies struggle with member retention more than they have in the past.

"If you train 10 members, in five years you're probably only going to have one left," Bowser said, adding that many continue because of their family tradition in the service.

"Most people that come in are because it was the family thing to do," Bowser said.

Liz Burns, 32, secretary at the English Consul department, said she married into the volunteer fire service. She and her husband, Doug, are volunteers, and four of their six children are also involved in the company. "It takes a lot of time and work, so it's good if you can include your family, too," Burns said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Pamela Wood contributed to this story.

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