Even when help is less than four miles away, traffic and the roads can add minutes to an emergency response. A substation, built and manned by the Bel Air Volunteer Fire Co., would bring that aid closer to the company's most populous service area, along Route 924 in Emmorton.
Fire officials say traffic, numerous signals, difficult turns and the circuitous route all add to the response time and clearly indicate a need for a substation to serve the neighborhoods surrounding the new Patterson Mill Middle High School.
They have unveiled plans for a 6,800-square-foot substation that would house one engine and one ambulance on a nearly 3-acre, county-owned parcel adjacent to the school property.
Calls from the Emmorton area have more than doubled in the past decade, including nine from the school, since it opened in the fall, and 106 from the nearby nursing home last year.
"It is not only traffic but all the additional calls, particularly for our three ambulances," said Rich Gardiner, spokesman for the Bel Air company. "Emmorton is our most populated area, and the travel time is made nearly impossible by distance and traffic."
One of those calls from the school occurred when a player suffered a neck injury during a Friday afternoon soccer match last fall. The Bel Air company, the busiest of Harford's all-volunteer stations, responded immediately. But its ambulance had to maneuver through rush hour congestion and took 12 minutes to arrive at the school, said principal Wayne Thibeault.
"Coming through downtown on a Friday at 5 p.m. is nearly impossible," he said. "If we had a paramedic nearby, the response would be less than three minutes. Response time is key in these emergencies."
With more development in the plans, the call volume will only increase, Gardiner said. A substation is critical to putting firefighters, EMTs and equipment closer to homes, shopping centers, schools and nursing centers.
The building on the corner of Patterson Mill and Emmorton roads would reflect the school's brick exterior and conform with it architecturally, officials said. The cost is estimated at $1.7 million, with an anticipated opening in 2010.
"With 1,600 kids here, what could be wrong with having a medic a driveway away?" Thibeault asked. "I see this as a real need for our community. Sometimes, an emergency boils down to seconds."
While residents say they recognize the need for a substation, some question the location and the possible impact on the learning atmosphere at the school.
"I see a need with the growing population, but I am concerned with the constant noise and traffic," said Janet DeVinney, parent of a Patterson Mill student. "I would like this more appropriately placed, away from the school and closer to the business district."
Mary Kate Keesling, a resident of the subdivision closest to the school and a parent of two students there, said Patterson Mill, which will phase in the 11th and 12th grades in the next two years, might need the nearby land in the future.
"I know the county promised the fire company this property long before there was a school here, but what if the school needs the land in the future for an athletic field or parking?" she asked.
Although the substation will not have a blaring siren, the typical dining hall or training classes, Keesling said she is concerned about noise and the increased traffic at an already busy signaled intersection. The substation would be equipped to control the traffic light.
"There will be no house siren on this station and only two pieces of equipment," Gardiner stressed. "I don't see this as a traffic problem."
The concern must be the safety for a growing community, he said. National fire safety standards stipulate that volunteer fire companies should arrive at a call in less than 10 minutes from the time of the alert.
The Insurance Service Offices, which provides information to help limit risks from fire and natural disasters, recommends that stations be located within 1.5 miles of any area as developed as Emmorton.
"Our fire company strives to provide the best service to its community," Gardiner said. "This substation will help us achieve the level of service needed."