From swift-water rescues to fighting brush fires, Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department has answered to call for 80 years

Motors had to be in working order, generators had to be topped off and tire pressures had to be checked. Sump pumps had to be in working order and, crucially, boats and paddles had to be ready to go.

Hurricane Florence was moving through the Atlantic Ocean, putting the Carolinas and Virginia in its path and poising to bring rain and flooding to Maryland. The men and women of the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department — one of only three departments with swift-water rescue units — were preparing for the worst-case scenario.


“The biggest thing is, obviously, monitoring the forecast, from a week before all the way to landfall, and even past that until the storm gets out of here,” said Norman Simpkins Jr., captain of the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department.

Ultimately, most damage from Hurricane Florence stayed well south of Maryland, but the Arbutus VFD took steps to prepare just in case.


Simpkins, himself a certified swift-water rescuer, said the VFD was coordinating with county and state officials and compiling a list of which members of the department could be available during which days of the predicted storm.

The station, he said, is already in the middle of its busiest year ever for swift-water rescue calls. As of Sept. 5, volunteers from Arbutus had responded to 57 swift-water incidents in 2018. Simpkins said they typically average 20 swift-water calls a year, including during the winter for ice-related incidents.

The department is holding a parade on July 13 and a two-day summer festival the same weekend featuring food, beer and live music.

Douglas Simpkins Jr., captain emeritus of the department and Norman’s uncle, was part of the decision in 1996 to form the swift-water rescue unit at Arbutus. He said the county government wanted the volunteer stations to choose a rescue specialty.

“We picked swift water on our end, because we have the water down here,” Douglas Simpkins said. “It was a good six-month training program, and then we all had to get certified.”

The choice to specialize in swift-water rescue came around the department’s 50th anniversary. This year, the department turned 80 years old and has already held celebrations, including a parade through Arbutus on July 15.

Arbutus nowadays is one of 28 volunteer stations that work beside 25 career stations in the county. It has 270-plus members, including 96 who regularly ride. The station hosts eight trucks, three boats and an all-terrain vehicle. As of Sept. 2, the station had responded to 3,000 calls in 2018.

In the past 80 years, the department has grown in size, invested more in training, accepted women among its ranks and developed into a community resource.

“Eighty years later, we have retired the horses, we have put away the leather buckets, we’ve stepped into the modern age,” said Douglas Simpkins.

That modern age clearly includes the increased need for the swift-water rescues. The Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department’s response area is adjacent the Patapsco River and streams that feed into Patapsco Valley State Park. Douglas Simpkins said the training for swift-water rescue involves tying specialty knots, equipment rigging, use of specialty equipment and learning what to do in case a crew member falls into the water.

“We did rescue [exercises] at a pool, then we went out to the Patapsco River and we charted the areas that we would have to [respond to],” he said.

Fractures, growth and development

The 20 years of swift-water rescues from Arbutus, though, represent just a fraction of the department’s history. Eighty years ago, the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department was incorporated following a leadership dispute in neighboring Violetville, a section of Baltimore City. A leadership dispute in 1937 caused the Violetville Volunteer Fire Department to fracture when 17 members departed the company and seized equipment on their way out.


On Feb. 4, 1938, the two factions of the department elected officers and in the subsequent months duked it out for legitimacy, according to a written history of the department.

After a 70-year run, the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department’s annual carnival is coming to an end.

With support from Anthony P. Orban, chief engineer of the Baltimore County Fire Department, the 17 men who split off from Violetville incorporated as the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department of Baltimore County on Nov. 21, 1938 — after a Circuit Court judge ordered them to return the stolen assets. Construction of a new firehouse began on Nov. 26 that year, on land leased to the department from the Arbutus Community Association.

The company moved across Linden Avenue in 1942 after purchasing an old community hall. In 1947, the department bought a truck with floodlights, boats, portable cellar cleanup equipment, pumps and grapple hooks, officially putting Arbutus in the rescue business. In the early ’50s, the company purchased a “brush vehicle” for fighting brush fires in the still-rural area.

One of the first big changes the department made, in 1961, was lowering the age requirement for joining from 21 to 18 years. Members not yet 21 needed parental consent and were not considered full members until they turned 21, according to the history.

With a growing population in the region and the need to house more vehicles, the department left Linden Avenue for its current location, 5200 Southwestern Blvd., in 1964.

“One of the biggest things is having women come in the fire service,” said Joseph Antoszewski, a 51-year veteran of the department. “When I first joined, it was just an all-male organization.”

It wasn’t until 1980 that women were accepted as full members of the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department. Currently, the Arbutus VFD has 64 female members, including 14 on the operations side of the station and 10 active members who don’t go on calls. Women have also served on the board of directors and as president on the administration side of the Arbutus VFD.

In the mid-1980s, the brush vehicle was damaged during a forest fire near the Giant shopping center on Wilkens Avenue. Because the area had developed so much since the vehicle was purchased 30 years earlier, the department decided to not replace the unit.

Also in the ’80s, the department purchased vehicles with a lime-green and yellow color scheme — one that would be replaced by 1993 with the purchase of a red-and-white heavy rescue vehicle. According to the department history, “nobody really liked the lime-green/yellow anyway, and if they did, they wouldn’t admit it.”

The Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department's Emergency Medical Services units responded to 2,730 incidents in 2015 for a total of 10,389 hours. The chart below shows where these responses were distributed in the area.

Again to help with recruitment, the department allowed 16-year-olds into service in 1995. Young members still need guardian consent to join and must show their report cards each quarter to prove their academic career wasn’t suffering.

The swift-water team at Arbutus, along with a volunteer unit in Kingsville, became the Swift Water Task Force in 1996. More recently, the department celebrated modern renovations to its station, including a larger radio room, more bunks and a bigger, more-open kitchen, in 2017.


Along the way, the department picked up traditions like hosting weekly bingo (a source of revenue for the AVFD to this day) and participating in community events. In July, the department celebrated its 80th anniversary with a parade in downtown Arbutus.


Jimmy Malone, a lieutenant in the company and a 44-year veteran of the department, said the parade was crucial for the AVFD to connect with those it serves.

“It’s important to all of us that we’re involved in the community, that they see us out there,” Malone said, because the department relies on community support.

The station today

“We now have computer tablets in our apparatus, which we would have never thought of years ago,” Douglas Simpkins said. “It's a more technological profession.”

The tablets allow emergency responders to get real-time updates about the situation to which they’re headed. Douglas Simpkins said that in his 40-plus years with the department the biggest changes have been in the training regimen.

“The requirements for training have just about tripled, hour-wise,” he said. The training is free, he said, but volunteers have to give up their time to take classes.

Norman Simpkins, the current captain, said the department does not struggle with recruitment; the real challenge is retaining members.

“There’s a turnaround of folks,” he said. “This day and age, a lot of folks need a second job. When you need that second job to bring food to the table, what drops off is your volunteering part of your day.”

Antoszewski said it was common in the past for volunteers to keep up the minimum number of hours to stay active members while raising children and then become more involved once the kids go to college or move out.

When Baltimore City Police officer Vincent Adolfo was gunned down in 1985, Bonnie Kabara decided to honor his memory with a song.

The Arbutus volunteers use a point system — 50 a year — to track whether members remain active, Norman Simpkins said. Members can earn points by going out on emergency calls, helping with fundraisers and putting in time at the station, among other tasks.

The station also sees a rotation of volunteers coming from the paramedic program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Students earning a bachelor’s degree in emergency health services at UMBC must first become a registered EMT. Gary Williams Jr., interim program director of the paramedic program at UMBC, said about a quarter of the students in the program — around 5-10 per year — go to Arbutus to gain medical experience.

“If [students are] living on or near campus, they go to Arbutus,” Williams said. “It’s the closest place. It’s almost like a feeder. [AVFD has] that constant flow of providers who are coming from our program to their program to continue that learning and growth service.”

The department also struggles with cash flow. In fiscal year 2019, which began July 1, Baltimore County is scheduled to disburse $9.7 million to the 29 volunteer companies in the county.

Elise Armacost, director of public affairs for Baltimore County Fire and Emergency Management, said she did not know yet how much money Arbutus would receive this year, because the companies submit invoices.

“I can tell you that last year (FY 18) Arbutus received nearly $408,000 in county funds, plus the value of county fuel and turnout gear and supplies from Fire Supply,” she said in an email.

The volunteers at Arbutus also raise money through bingo nights and an annual photo fund drive, where donors can purchase professional portrait sessions hosted at the firehouse. The fund drive is ongoing until December.

In November, the department will hold a cash raffle, at $5 per entry, with drawings every 10 minutes.

The department also engages with the community by hosting the popular “Food Truck Wednesdays,” in which a number of food trucks set up in the department’s parking lot and customers can take their food inside to eat in the hall.

Douglas Simpkins, who’s currently on the AVFD’s board of directors, said that although he understands folks are facing “hard times,” the department is asking for small donations from each household — just $5 or $10 per year.

“A small donation of any type, once a year, it helps keep us moving,” he said. “We want to assure [Arbutus] that we’re not going anywhere. We’re going to be here.”

Recommended on Baltimore Sun