Mapping Columbia's playgrounds


When an emergency or crime is happening in Columbia's open space, there's one significant problem -- none of it has an address.

That can make it difficult for a police officer to find a specific location along the suburb's nearly 90 miles of pathways.

The Columbia Association wants to make the process easier by numbering each of the town's more than 160 tot lots along the pathways -- indicated by a sign posted at the playgrounds -- and coordinating with the county police department through a global positioning system program that would show each location.

The homeowners association's board of directors has agreed to add $20,000 to the proposed fiscal year 2004 budget for the project. The board is scheduled to approve the budget Wednesday, and the project could be completed by April next year.

"I think this would just help create a sense of security in the tot lots," said Kirk Halpin, the board's Kings Contrivance representative. "Unfortunately, the tot lots and pathways are a place where people can do things where they shouldn't."

Now, when people want to report a possible crime along the pathways, they go through what Chick Rhodehamel, the Columbia Association's vice president for open space management, described as a "bulky, awkward process."

Rhodehamel says residents who see questionable activity while walking along a trail and call police may not be able to supply dispatchers with the address of a home closest to the open space area. So the residents may end up telling police their home address, where they meet the police officer and together they walk to the site.

"There could be, in emergency situations, confusion," Rhodehamel said. "This is a new adventure for somebody who's used to driving on the roads and responding to traffic accidents or a domestic situation at a particular house."

Common confusion

That confusion happened twice to resident Gabriel Terrasa. About seven years ago, Terrasa was walking along a path near his Kings Contrivance home and saw youths setting a tot lot on fire. He put out the fire and called police, trying to explain the playground's location and also told dispatchers where he lived.

Twenty minutes later, police and a fire engine showed up at Terrasa's home because they couldn't find the tot lot, he said.

Last year, Terrasa encountered a similar problem while riding his bike along a pathway to Lake Elkhorn. He saw a Jeep parked in the pathway area, and Terrasa -- thinking the men in the car were acting suspiciously -- called police on his cell phone.

Terrasa had a difficult time telling the 911 operator the Jeep's location, and 15 minutes later the dispatcher called him back because police couldn't find it.

"If I was riding or running and I got a heart attack and called 911, nobody would have found me," he said.

But Cpl. Lisa Myers, a Howard County police spokeswoman, said officers usually don't have a problem finding the playgrounds. Normally, residents will call police and report an incident in the tot lot behind their home, and police can respond to the home's address.

"The officer in that particular area will be familiar with the tot lots in his or her area," Myers said.

But sometimes people are unfamiliar with the area when they report a crime and are unsure how to describe where they are, Myers said.

"That can be a problem," she said.

Myers said the association's proposal to number the tot lots and track the locations with a GPS program would help officers to find the locations.

Halpin routinely runs on the pathways, and in the past he has raised concerns about the challenge of identifying the paths during emergencies. He noted that highways have mile markers, enabling motorists to easily relay a road location.

"If I saw something on a run I want to be able to report it, and without the tot lots being designated ... it creates some problems," he said.

Numbering the playgrounds would also make it easier to identify them for maintenance, Halpin said. Often when residents let Halpin know about problems at a tot lot, they don't always know how to describe the location.

"I have people who call me and say, 'I took my kids to the tot lot,' and I say 'Which one?' And they don't remember," he said.

Rhodehamel said there hasn't been an overwhelming demand from residents to develop a system to better identify the playgrounds in emergencies, but the need exists.

Night closings

In some cases, residents have complained about illegal activity at tot lots, causing the association to close some at night.

Last month, the association's board voted to close a tot lot at dusk in Oakland Mills, after a request from the Oakland Mills Village board.

After residents complained of illegal drug use and underage drinking at a playground near Caboose Court, the village board requested the Columbia Association post a sign at the tot lot, indicating it is closed from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

While the closure doesn't mean police will patrol the playground area, it does allow officers to enforce a trespassing law, Rhodehamel said.

The association has only had to close handful of tot lots at night because of similar concerns, Rhodehamel said.

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