What if there were a fire?


No one remembers exactly when the carnival that benefited the firefighters stopped coming to town. Or when the volunteers stopped cooking up their suppers every night at the fire hall, instead making the occasional fast-food run. Or when having enough volunteers was more than a memory.

But in areas such as southern Anne Arundel County, the decline of the community-based volunteer fire stations also began without much notice.

As volunteers retired and the ranks of new ones dwindled, they were largely being replaced by full-time county employees until, finally, the fire hall was no longer the social center of the community.

"I remember just eight years ago, moms were always bringing their kids by to look at the fire engines," said Lt. Bobby Howlin, chief of the Woodland Beach Volunteer Fire Company in Edgewater.

"We were always getting little care packages of cakes and cookies people would drop off for us. You don't see that much anymore."

The trend is nationwide, public safety officials say, with fewer people having the time or inclination to answer the middle-of-night calls and battle multi- alarm blazes. Here and elsewhere, they would rather leave that chore to paid firefighters.

In Riva, the volunteers saw their ranks shrink from 50 to two in the past 20 years. The result hasn't been so much a threat to public safety, but rather a loss of a way of life as South County's once-rural, close-knit villages became more of a bedroom community.

For folks in Shady Side, the days of families gathering every evening at the fire station are long gone, said Dennis Skinner, a volunteer at Avalon Shores Fire Station since 1968.

"Back then, South County was a rural area," Skinner said. "There wasn't a whole lot to do. It was one big family."

In Galesville, coming of age was once being old enough to ride the engine without parental guidance, said Nathan Covington Scotten IV, better known as "Cov."

Now, he said, "the kids don't want to do it anymore. It takes too much discipline for them with all the new training."

In Deale, Melvin and Margaret Whittington embody the history of volunteer firefighters in South County.

Melvin Whittington, 80, is the only surviving charter member of the Deale Volunteer Fire Department, and his wife of 59 years is one of the founders of the department's Ladies Auxiliary.

Back in the 1940s, residents in Deale had been talking about starting a fire station. The closest fire departments were in Galesville and North Beach in Calvert County, and in an area defined by farms and isolated properties, a fire could be devastating.

"We had absolutely no protection," Margaret Whittington said.

So her husband and about 20 other men in the community got together and organized a volunteer department in 1946. They bought an old 1936 open cab fire truck named "Nellie Belle" and kept it in a garage at Route 256 and Drum Point Road until they built a station house down the street.

"Everyone worked for free," she said.

From its inception, the firehouse became a center of the Deale community. Bingo and fund-raising dinners were held there, and teen-age boys often spent time hanging around the station.

"They'd just sit around and tell jokes," she said. "You don't see that today."

Maurice "Snooks" Carr, treasurer of the Riva Volunteer Fire Company, has seen the change, too, as the number of certified volunteers dwindled in 20 years from 50 to two in his department.

Most people aren't willing to spend months in training and do the same work that others are getting paid for, he said. "It's a hard sell. They just don't have the time."

They don't have as much interest, either.

Although the Riva company sends out an annual fund-raising letter, Carr said, there are no more pancake breakfasts or carnivals.

The Woodland Beach company will have a carnival this week. But Howlin said the area has grown so much that "many of the new people may not realize there's a fire station back here."

The Woodland Beach company is doing well by comparison. There are 20 volunteers certified as firefighters and first responders, and more might be on the way thanks to local interest in a cadet program that trains teen-agers in firefighting for school credit.

Still, Howlin said, recruiting volunteers is difficult:

"It's like they say, you have to spend money to make money. Well, we need volunteers to get the volunteers."

Finding volunteers isn't easy anywhere, said John Long, president of the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefighters Association.

In the most active departments across the county, it's more than community service, it's a family tradition.

At volunteer fire companies in the northern part of the county, the average number of volunteers certified to respond to calls is 37. In South County, the average is 12.

Though some stations struggle in North County, such as Jessup, which is down to four volunteers, others, such as Ferndale, Glen Burnie and Orchard Beach, have more than 50, including certified responders and administrative volunteers who help with fund raising and maintenance. In Riviera Beach, there are 85.

"I'm not sure why that is," Long said. "South County's population is changing more, and I think it's mostly city people moving out to the country who grew up with paid fire stations.

"They move from areas where they could pick up the phone and expect someone to be there."

Still, the response times in North County and South County differ by less than a minute, according to a February study by the Anne Arundel County Fire Department.

Although the fire stations in North County are closer together and roads are situated so that getting to a fire is easier, Fire Battalion Chief John M. Scholz noted that there are also more calls for service in the northern and central parts of the county, which means that in South County, there's less likelihood the crews will be out on another call when someone needs them.

"It all depends on how you look at it," said Scholz, adding that a significant fire will require response from several stations, no matter where it is.

Most volunteers these days carry pagers, responding to calls when they can; quite a few are paid firefighters in nearby counties who volunteer in their communities.

Doug Howard has worked for the U.S. Naval Academy Fire Department for 20 years and has been a volunteer in Deale for 25. He is devoted to both and has started putting together a history of volunteer firefighters in the county.

He's collected old fire engines, put together four scrapbooks and videotaped interviews with some of the county's first volunteers.

"I'm trying to capture some life history," Howard said. "Once these people are gone ... "

But a few loyalists remain - those who stop by the station on their way to and from work, a handful who own businesses and have the flexibility to respond anytime.

Then, there are volunteers such as Curtis Dye, the kind of man who can make a pot of coffee and bring people together. At 80 years old, Dye continues to stop almost daily at the Woodland Beach fire station, where he's served in various capacities from firefighter to chief since 1951.

Though he stopped responding to calls when he reached his early 70s, Dye continues to help with maintenance around the station, where he is loved and respected.

He is also a department chaplain, an organizer and one of the last of his kind.

Dye said he never thought of retiring - not when his local hardware business was busy; not when he juggled work, family and late-night calls; not now that his eyesight isn't as good and others his age have retired.

"I found the time, because this is what I wanted to do," Dye said. "All you had to hear was the doctor saying how you saved that person's life, or got the call where you pick up a little child from the water and see them kicking.

"These are things that keep you hanging around," he said. "Anyone who is here is serving the community. I still think this is something worthwhile."

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