Fire hall quickly becomes 'storm central'

At the Bowleys Quarters fire station, volunteers help sort storage boxes for flood victims. "You can't beat this fire hall," says Tammy Schmelzer of Bowleys Quarters. "They'd do anything for you here."
The Bowleys Quarters Volunteer Fire Department headquarters isn't just a fire hall anymore.

These days, it's a bus stop, a diner, a supply warehouse, a dispatch site for cleanup crews, a welcome center and a community hall for an eastern Baltimore County neighborhood left barely recognizable by Tropical Storm Isabel.

"I've been coming here every day - for cleaning supplies, ice, whatever I need," said Charles Stricker, a 64-year-old retired Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. employee whose house on Chester Road is all but destroyed. "Thank God for them and St. Matthew's Lutheran Church. I've been going there for lunch and dinner every day. The community's really come together."

All day yesterday, Bowleys Quarters firefighters distributed plastic containers, batteries, trash bags and ice to a steady stream of residents pulling up outside the fire engine bays.

The same group of volunteers waded up to front porches last Thursday and Friday and motored around in boats to rescue trapped families. But as the roads that became rivers dried out, the station, on Bowleys Quarters Road, became the help depot.

"We're kind of storm central," firefighter Rick Fischer said yesterday, pausing while loading supplies into car trunks and onto flat beds.

The word was out along the waterfront communities - if you needed something, Bowleys Quarters fire station was the place to go, whether it was information about where to drop off clothing donations or to pick up extra trash bags.

Almost as fast as Baltimore County employees could buy the supplies, the firefighters rationed them to residents.

Because of debris-littered roads, school buses picked up and dropped off neighborhood students at the fire station. The Salvation Army stationed a meal truck at the entrance, where volunteers have been serving 100 to 300 meals a day. Yellow county dump trucks and cleanup crews took over the back parking lot, waiting for their next assignments.

Vicky Paradise, 53, was rescued from her home on Burke Road by Bowleys Quarters firefighters early Friday when she and her husband were surrounded by rising water. The firefighters took her and her 4-year-old grandson, Creed, by boat to the fire station where they caught a bus to a shelter.

Yesterday, she and Creed returned to the fire station, picked up some plastic bins and ate lunch at the Salvation Army truck.

"I don't know what we would've done without the Bowleys Quarters Fire Department and the Salvation Army, the police and everyone else that was there that morning and who have been here since," Paradise said. "I'm so appreciative."

She was among scores of people who stopped by the station yesterday. Insurance adjusters pulled up asking for directions. One man drove over asking about the safety of drinking water. A woman wanted to know where she could find bug spray.

Today, the station's banquet hall will be the site of a meeting between flood victims and county and federal emergency officials. After that, a wedding party will rehearse for a ceremony and reception scheduled at the fire station Saturday.

This station's role as a gathering place in good times and in times of crisis is not new. It was a focal point during Joseph C. Palczynski's killing spree in 2000 and in the aftermath of Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

But the fire station also regularly plays to host bull roasts and birthday parties. On a normal weekday, only one volunteer, Jerry Cusic, is there to answer phones and keep things going.

Yesterday, more than dozen volunteer firefighters and ladies' auxiliary members were on hand to help residents.

Dottie Raschka, 48, who lives on Burke Road, stopped by looking for ice.

"What? Are you having a party?" firefighter Jim Welzenbach said jokingly as he lifted two large bags of ice into her arms. "Yes," she replied, smiling. "A demolition party."

Volunteer firefighters placed containers and trash bags on Tammy Schmelzer's lap because there was no other place in her Chevrolet 4x4 to put the supplies.

"You can't beat this fire hall," the 54-year-old Bowleys Quarters woman said. "They'd do anything for you here. The firefighters are even coming out to help pump the water out of people's houses."

For those who couldn't make it to the fire station, county vans loaded up on supplies in the bays and drove them out to the neighborhoods. The county also set up a supply station for flood victims yesterday at the North Point-Edgemere Fire Company at 7500 North Point Road.

County fire Lt. Richard Muth, director of the county's Office of Emergency Management, was at the Bowleys Quarters station yesterday directing workers to buy supplies at the nearby Wal-Mart and unpacking batteries from boxes.

"Every little bit helps," said Joanne Lacher, a 40-year-old secretary from Bowleys Quarters, as volunteers gave her plastic bins with lids to store what she can salvage from her house. "It's wonderful what they're doing here. Even a broom comes in handy because yours is probably floating down the bay about now."