Though some of Carroll’s 14 fire companies predate even the 1837 formation of the county itself, they remain at the forefront of the public safety conversation.
The organization of the fire companies was one of the topics for the Public Safety Cluster of the county’s Long Term Advisory Council.
Dennis Brothers, a member of the Gamber and Community Fire Co. and past president of the Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association (CCVESA), talked about the changes that he has seen to the volunteer ranks in emergency services since he joined in 1975.
“I took a 60-hour fire department class to learn how to ride a fire engine. Then I was committed. I was counted on to respond every time the siren would go off,” he said. “But you’re running a very small amount of calls. If I had to get out of bed two or three times a year, that was unusual. We didn’t run the kind of calls we do today.”
The need for emergency response increases as the aging population requires medical services, more housing comes into the county and traffic increases, leading to more crashes.
And finding volunteers at all hours gets harder as many families see both parents working and jobs tend toward longer and more irregular hours, Brothers said.
It’s difficult, “both operatively and administratively” to reliably staff the stations 24/7 in the way that is needed.
They recommended taking more steps toward bringing the 14 individual companies together under one organizing structure.
“We need to train together, we need to work under one umbrella, not just a figurehead, but we need to actively have some leadership there,” Brothers said.
Commissioner, Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, who has been volunteering as long as Brothers has, agreed.
“To me, that means perhaps hiring an individual who would be an administrator-type to begin to define the needs of our fire service,” he said.
The first step toward this was taken in January of 2018 after months of consideration. Enabling legislation passed through the Carroll delegation in Annapolis, allows the commissioners, if they choose to in the future, exercise authority over the volunteer fire service. The decision was approved 12-2 by the county fire companies and 4-1 by the county commissioners.
With the current system, Brothers said in his presentation, “There’s no enforcement responsibility. We can’t control that. So while we still praise our volunteers ... we will see in the future some kind of combination department similar to our neighbors in surrounding jurisdictions in Maryland.
For Wantz, fiscal responsibility and maintaining the integrity of the volunteer service to the 14 companies are crucial going forward.
“Those buildings and those departments are the hubs of our communities and that has to remain,” he said.
In the upcoming county budgeting process or the next, he hopes to see groundwork laid for all companies to combine on matters like purchasing equipment or ambulance billing.
“This is going to be financially challenging for us,” he said. ‘There is absolutely no way we can just say, ‘OK, in 2022 or 2023 we’re going to have a career fire service.’
“We have to make sure that the volunteer aspect remains,” he said. “It’s going to be a delicate balance moving forward … to surgically infuse a career aspect into our volunteer systems.”
Brian DeLeonardo, Carroll County State’s Attorney and a member of the cluster, said the State’s Attorney’s Office will also be in a new location following funding approved in the last budget cycle.
As a member of the cluster, the future of the fire companies and maintaining a low crime rate were two of the most substantive issues they focused on.
When making recommendations, they “focused on a real problem that had a real solution,” he said.
Carroll County Detention Center
Housed inside a building constructed in the 1970s, the Carroll County Detention Center (CCDC) does not have enough space or the right type of space for today’s corrections, Carroll County Sheriff Jim DeWees said.
The Detention Center holds men and women, both pretrial and those who have been sentenced to 18 months or less of incarceration. Those with longer sentences move to other facilities in the state’s corrections department.
This means that a majority of the people housed there will go out into the community again.
In addition to more space for inmates from a growing county population — “Unfortunately with population comes crime,” he said — the current CCDC building does not have enough space for the programs, from work release to drug treatment to Bible study, that help people re-integrate into life outside jail.
The Public Safety Cluster asked for building a new Detention Center with a bigger capacity, but near the same area that it’s currently housed near the Carroll County Circuit and District courthouses.
DeWees said there are programs that are ready to come into the Detention Center, but CCDC has to pick and choose because of space constraints.
Incarcerated women are lacking more than men. At a given time, there are about 25 to 30 women in the CCDC and only half of them are post-conviction meaning they may have been court-ordered to participate in programs. That leaves about 10 people, only two of whom might participate in a program. It’s hard to get nonprofits in and prioritize space for a program for two people. An equivalent men’s program might have 50 or 60 participants.
The men’s work release program, for example, has a dedicated unit that gives them space to change into civilian clothes and get ready to work, which can include work around the grounds of the detention center or at outside job sites. Women in the work release program change in the Detention Center’s public bathrooms, DeWees said.
A seemingly small thing is the lack of windows in the facility. For inmates and correctional deputies, “it’s not healthy not to know whether it’s day or night … it causes depression and it screws up your sleep patterns.”
This isn’t helpful for “a better, safer more efficient workplace” for deputies or the ideal of corrections that after serving time, people will have “corrected their behavior and they leave here in a better state of mind,” he said.
Once a new detention center is constructed, DeWees recommends putting a parking garage in the place of the old one to improve the parking situation for the entire court complex.
He recognized that the county commissioners have a difficult task identifying where to go with funding when there are so many infrastructure projects to be done.
“The good thing is that the state will provide matching funding for a facility,” he said and hoped the county would start on plans now because he believes the governor and the state secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services would be supportive.
“It’s not a glamorous project. Not everyone does ribbon cuttings and rallies behind it,” DeWees said. “But in a civilized society … we need to have a detention center that not only holds violent prisoners, but is constructed or designed to help reintegrate folks into society.”
Westminster Police Chief Jeff Spaulding, a member of the cluster, said there were ways the project could benefit municipal police departments.
“The construction of a new detention center is an important long-term goal which will benefit all law enforcement agencies serving the county. The new facility would have enhanced security features to safeguard the community and an updated booking center to expedite the return of arresting officers to the field following an arrest,” he said.
Wantz said the commissioners are “well aware that we’re going to have to do something in the not-too-distant future.”
Gradual steps include acquiring land near the county Board of Education building on North Court Street near the courts and the existing Detention Center.
He agreed that state funding would be crucial and said a future project would be careful to meet parameters to qualify for that funding.
In the meantime, he was glad they taking their time in hopes that they could approve a smaller and more fiscally responsible facility.
“We know that our detention center population is down,” he said. “There are always things folks are doing across the country to reduce incarceration and recidivism.”
Precincts for the Sheriff’s Office
As the law enforcement body tasked with serving all of the unincorporated county from the tip of Lineboro to the toe of Woodbine, a move toward establishing precincts within the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office would increase accountability and effectiveness, the cluster said.
There are currently offices in South Carroll and North Carroll, but they don’t have the kind of public presence that is ideal for community policing. The South Carroll office is very small and hard to access. From the Northern office, where major crimes detectives work, they may have to travel 40 minutes just to do a follow-up on something that happened in the southern part of the county.
County plans are already in motion for a South Carroll precinct in Eldersburg, one of the most populated and commerce-heavy unincorporated areas in the county. The building, for which the commissioners earmarked about $3 million in year four of the six-year budget plan, will be located downtown and be easily visible.
This visibility helps with enforcement, DeWees said. It also improves relationships with the community when people know exactly where law enforcement is and feel that they can go there with a problem.
In areas where policing is broken down into geographic precincts, “Folks are accountable to particular areas from command down to specialized units,” he said.
After Eldersburg, a North Carroll area precinct would be next. DeWees said the former North Carroll High School building, where the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office Training academy is based, could be one viable location if the county retains ownership of the property.
Said Spaulding: “It is quite common for larger agencies to establish patrol districts or precincts. Different areas of the county have different public safety issues, problems and needs. Practice has demonstrated that subdividing the county into smaller districts and assigning geographic responsibility to specific police commander is an effective way to address crime and enhance community policing and involvement at the local level.”