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Elkridge fire station opens with room to grow

When the Elkridge Volunteer Fire Department ran its first call in 1942, its single fire engine named “Daisy” could easily service the area’s 3,000 residents.

But over the years as Elkridge’s population has grown to an estimated 16,000 people, its aging station on Washington Boulevard has struggled to keep up.

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“We really outgrew it,” Assistant Chief Christine Uhlhorn said.

Engines, which have grown in size and capability over the past 76 years, could hardly fit in the station, said Elkridge Volunteer Fire Chief Russell Pryor, forcing the department to “fit the equipment to the station, instead of the station to the equipment.”

“We were running out of room and we had to always buy equipment that was smaller than what we really needed,” he said. “We had to custom [order] everything that we got.”

Pryor and other department officials, including former volunteer chief Donald Watson, began advocating for a new station nearly a decade ago. After a location search that included two other sites in Elkridge, including the site of the Elkridge Branch Library along Route 1, construction began on Rowanberry Road in October 2016.

Dreams of a new station became reality on Saturday when the county celebrated the opening of a new, $13.7 million fire house.

At 34,080 square feet, the station has six pull-through apparatus bays for engines, trucks and ambulances, as well as kitchen and living space for crews and a hall for community events.

Most importantly, according to Deputy Chief of Operations Daniel Merson, the new station has room to grow.

“It was exciting to see the station come together, we’ve been planning it for several years,” Merson said. “Elkridge is a growing community so we needed a fire station that could grow with the community, with the Route 1 corridor especially, it was much needed.”

Residential buildings continue to crop up in the northeastern corridor of the county, including 1,000 units planned for Howard Square, a rowhouse-like development.

The fire station is the third major community project opening this year. Earlier this month the county opened the Elkridge Branch Library and Elkridge 50+ Center.

The old station is being sold and turned into a church, according to former Howard County Volunteer Firefighter Association president Julie Casey. She declined to disclose the name of the buyer.

Walk into any room of the new facility with Uhlhorn and she is quick to point out the numerous updates and upgrades. The crew’s kitchen is now commercial style, rather than residential, better suited to handle the wear and tear of the 21 career firefighters and 90 volunteer members who cook in it throughout the week.

“About a month or so ago, I went goose hunting, and they cooked up geese,” Pryor said. “It was excellent. Most of the time these guys, they sit down as a family.”

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The only old equipment in the kitchen is the table, bearing the station’s seal.

While not fancy, Pryor said the new furniture and accommodations for crews will make a big difference. That’s a good thing, since Pryor said officials expect the facility to serve the county for the next 50 years.

Beyond just being more comfortable and functional for crews living in the building, the station will help firefighters be more efficient when responding to calls. Unlike the original station, the bunkroom is on the same floor as the apparatus bay, meaning firefighters can get out the door faster when responding to emergencies, Uhlhorn said.

The average response time in 2017 for the first arriving fire engine from Elkridge to an emergency was 6 minutes, 30 seconds faster than the county average. The average response time for advanced life support crews was 7 minutes and 30 seconds, according to department data.

When 911 calls are placed in Howard County, dispatchers will alert the station that is closest to the emergency, Uhlhorn said. Using a GPS system, stations may overlap service areas or respond to calls outside their “first-due response area.”

The centralized site choice for the facility will help with efficiency Uhlhorn said, with access to Route 1 and Route 100; in the future she said the department hopes to add an access ramp from the station to Interstate 95.

The station has an indoor and outdoor training tower, allowing firefighters to practice rope rappels and ladder throws. Uhlhorn said crews try to do some training every 24-hour shift.

“They like to be ready,” she said.

Crews were in action during the first operational day of the facility on March 22, with eight calls before 1 p.m., Uhlhorn said. That call volume is busy for a morning, she said; at the old station they received that many calls in a 24-hour period.

In 2017, the station’s first-due response area had 2,339 incidents, averaging 45 incidents per week, according to department data. The number of incidents rose 14 percent compared with 2010.

As the community’s population and needs continue to grow, Uhlhorn said the department is looking for ways to stay ahead of the curve. The county’s next project will be a fire station at Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia.

“We want to make sure when we build any fire station that we’re looking down the road,” she said.

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