Safety concerns delay new rifle range


The targets and firing line are ready, but Maryland's new $800,000 police rifle range can't open because of an apparent safety problem: Errant shots could hit a nearby driver-training track or buildings at the Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville.

Law enforcement officials fear that ricochets and shots fired slightly off-target could easily reach the track, which lies within 50 yards of the range and is used by hundreds of officers. Several hospital buildings also are within a half-mile of the range, and rifle shots can travel three to five miles.

Now, nine months after the range was scheduled to open as part of Maryland's new $20 million law enforcement training center, state officials are trying to determine whether it needs a costly redesign."As soon as I saw the design plans for the rifle range, I knew there would be problems with containment," said Ed Esworthy, a former U.S. national pistol team member who was hired to install targets.

State officials are wondering what to do.

They have discussed the problem at the range, part of a law enforcement training center with classroom and administrative buildings, several firearms ranges and two driver-training tracks.

All of the parties involved in planning and design met at the site recently to discuss ways to fix it, said Ray Franklin, project officer for the Police and Correctional Training Commissions, a division of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

That group included members of the commission, the range architect and representatives of the Maryland Department of General Services, which is overseeing construction of the center, said law enforcement officials who spoke on condition they not be identified."Anyone can see that bullets can hit the hospital," said Sam Ecker, project director for EnviroServe Inc.,of Sykesville, the general contractor for the ranges. He said he questioned the design when he first saw it to no avail.

The design for the project was completed by architectural engineers from Whitman, Requardt & Associatesof Baltimore. Dave McCormick, spokesman for the architect, declined to discuss the design and said the newspaper is not the proper forum for debate.

Dave Humphrey, communications director for the Department of General Services, rejected the notion that the rifle range was poorly designed and said the range has not opened because of the "need for additional design review for functionality and usefulness."

In other words, the rifle range will not open until all state agencies involved are satisfied it is safe to shoot there, the law enforcement officers said.

The rifle range, a 200-by-12-yard rectangle with targets slightly downhill from the firing line, was to have opened nine months ago along with pistol and pop-up target ranges.

But too many officers noticed problems with the rifle range."The hospital and oval track at the driver-training facility were clearly visible from the firing line," one officer said. "Firing with even a slight deviation of a rifle barrel would put people and buildings at risk."

And if you can see it, you can shoot it, the officer said.

Possible solutions - altering the slope of the range, building a higher berm behind the target area or fully enclosing the range with overhead and side baffling - would be costly. No figures were available.

One safety feature built into the design, rifle "muzzle constrictors" that consist of bars that limit the barrel's movement in all directions, do not restrict movement enough to prohibit all errant shots or ricochets."They could add one more overhead baffle near the firing line and substantially raise the berm to stop direct rounds from escaping the range, but even that would be costly," Esworthy said. "If they want 100 percent containment, they're going to have to fully enclose the sides and overhead with baffling."

Franklin said of the training commission, "From the beginning, our preference was always for 100 percent containment."

As it is, the rifle range is protected by side baffles consisting of 12 metal plates, each about 10 by 10 feet, that are covered in an inch-thick fiber that prevents ricochets. At the rear of the range is a similar wall 10 feet high and 36 feet long called a "bullet catch" that is covered in the same fiber. Behind that is a low earthen mound a bit higher and wider than the rear wall.

Up front, next to a two-story tower for short-range rifle practice, is a small, square hut over the firing line where those using weapons would stand. Two steel cases, holding pop-up targets, about 2 feet high and 10 feet long, lie on the ground at the center of the range.

Ricochets off those pop-up targets cause much of the concern, law enforcement officials said. Bullets from rifles could strike the steel-framed cases and fly over side baffles or the back berm, they said.

A half-dozen hospital buildings - Hitchman, Salomon, McKeldin, admissions, staffing and administration offices - appear to be in the most danger. About 300 patients and staff members live or work in those buildings, said Janice Bowen, Springfield's chief operating officer.

She said hospital officials trust the police training commission will not permit the rifle range to open until it is safe. "We will be contacting them about it," she said.

The hospital buildings might be in less danger than the two-lane driver-training track.

It is a used constantly. "Except for Thanksgiving and Christmas weeks, we're booked solid with either one or two classes a week for the rest of the year," said Lt. Al Liebno, the driving school's administrator.

About 1,200 officers completed training there last year, receiving five to nine hours of on-the-road instruction in high-speed driving.

Several pistol ranges opened last week, nine months late, amid a dispute between the state and EnviroServe over payments for $2.4 million in extra work. That dispute is expected to be settled next yearby Maryland's Board of Contract Appeals.

More than 25,000 police, correctional, and parole and probation officers from across Maryland will train at the new driving and firearms center.

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