Md. county to take over volunteer technical rescue team
Apparent disagreements over training, funding and lack of recognition for volunteers led to the change
By Steve Bohnel
The Frederick News-Post, Md.
FREDERICK COUNTY, Md. — Float ropes, tool kits, an advanced communications system, air monitors and other lifesaving equipment sat stored on a truck inside the Independent Hose Company.
The truck and equipment are just a piece of a service that the volunteer fire company in Frederick -- the oldest of its kind in Maryland -- has operated since the early 1990s, according to fire house leadership.
Come next month, the management of the service and corresponding team will look different.
Independent Hose Company and officials with the county's Division of Fire and Rescue Services announced the county will manage the team starting Nov. 1.
Both sides agreed the county should handle the transition, but apparent disagreements over training, funding and a lack of recognition from county leadership -- among other issues -- led to the change.
How they started
Brian Grossnickle, fire chief at the Independent Hose Company, said the Advanced Technical Rescue Team's charter members were vital in initial funding and the formation of the team.
"I don't think you can see many places around this metropolitan area that have had the dedication of the volunteers to provide this type of service for over 28 years," Grossnickle said.
According to articles from The Frederick Post, the Advanced Technical Rescue Team officially went into service in June 1992.
Grossnickle and Peter Gorelick, the team leader for the Advanced Technical Rescue Team, said many factors likely led to the formation of the team, including the county's growing population and the need for high-rope rescues in Thurmont in Cunningham Falls State Park and near Sugarloaf Mountain near Urbana.
But a fatal bus crash on Aug. 25, 1985, at the Jug Bridge on Interstate 70 was also a turning point, they said. Five people died, and another 12 were injured. The Frederick Post reported that first responders who arrived at the scene "described the bridge as being similar to a battlefield with bodies and debris strewn throughout."
Gorelick said the elements of the crash -- people ejected from the bus, off the bridge and on to the Monocacy River embankment -- meant first responders and rescue squads had to train for those events.
"People had some basic knowledge in rope rescue, technical rescue. But it was clear that more was necessary," Gorelick said. "And so, the concept of having to expand those technical rescue services, that was one of the driving forces at the time, was that bus accident. People realized we needed more training, more equipment."
So, volunteer firefighters countywide started to train for those types of scenarios. The original charter members, which numbered about 20, and the Independent Hose Company raised about $10,000 in start-up funds to begin the team in July 1992. That covered training, equipment and a trailer.
The team "set the standard" when it comes to technical rescue, Grossnickle said. At first, that was rope rescue for people trapped in high or confined spaces, but that slowly evolved into more technical rescues, like assisting boat teams from fire companies during floods and similar events.
Gorelick said training is not only knowing what equipment to use but how and why to use it.
"I can tie a rope to a tree and repel over it, but I can also pull that tree over if I don't understand what forces are applied to that tree," Gorelick said. "So a lot of technical rescue is not just how do we do it, but why do we do it?"
Why is the county taking over?
Both Grossnickle and Tom Coe, chief of the county's Division of Fire and Rescue Services, said they were confident that there would be a "smooth transition" regarding the overall management of the Advanced Technical Rescue Team.
Grossnickle declined to comment on the shift, except to say a "political climate" over the last three years helped lead to the decision by the Independent Hose Company's Board of Directors. Coe said daily service wouldn't be impacted by the shift in oversight.
"From the citizens' perspective, from a service delivery perspective, there really will be no change," Coe said. "There still will be a combination team of volunteer and career technical rescue experts that respond to a citizen need, just the oversight of the team will be by the Division of Fire Rescue operations."
A letter dated July 7, from Grossnickle, Gorelick, and Jeffrey Scire, president of the Independent Hose Company's Board of Directors, highlights some concerns. That letter was addressed to County Executive Jan Gardner, County Council President M.C. Keegan-Ayer and Coe, along with other county fire service officials.
The letter stated the Division of Fire and Rescue Services was supplying more career firefighters to help support the Advanced Technical Rescue Team but noted that team's leadership had several concerns, including:
-- Safety concerns during high-risk training sessions conducted by Division of Fire and Rescue Services staff were ignored;
-- Equipment purchases did not meet National Fire Protection Association Standards;
-- A flat budget for the rescue team, versus purchases made for the Division of Fire and Rescue Services staff.
Coe declined to comment on the letter, which also included a claim that Independent Hose Company and Advanced Technical Rescue Team leadership were ignored by the county in an email regarding "nearly three decades of hard work and dedication by all ATR members to sustain the team's technical rescue capabilities and expand services."
"I think this transition of leadership will provide for the future growth of the team, and the county is incredibly appreciative of the charter members of the Advanced Technical Rescue Team that started this most critical service for the citizens of Frederick County, and for their service over the years," Coe said.
Beginning Nov. 1, the equipment needed for the Advanced Technical Rescue Team will be housed at the Urbana Volunteer Fire Department, Coe said. The station has space for the equipment. Eventually, the new headquarters for it will be at the Northgate Fire Station in Frederick due to its central location.
Team members will still respond from all around the county, Coe said. They will report to Lenne Stolberg, battalion chief of special operations for the county's fire and rescue service, he said.
"The location of the resources is just really a matter of where they're housed between incidents," Coe said. "The deployment of the team and the speed for which it deploys will be no different than at the Independent Hose Company."
County officials decided not to purchase a 2007 truck from the Independent Hose Company, which currently carries much of the equipment. Grossnickle said fire house officials will sell the vehicle elsewhere.
Coe said the county did not have the budget for a rescue vehicle, and will instead keep the equipment in a trailer for the time being.
It's unclear how the shift might impact the county's budget. In recent years, the county provided $12,000 for equipment and other needs, and much more for training, Coe said.
But the service is needed countywide, not only for its residents, but also to help with neighboring counties when mutual aid is needed, officials said.
Grossnickle said he is proud of the team's work, which he and others believe has saved county taxpayers millions of dollars in equipment and training costs.
"The Independent Hose Company is the one with the support of the county at this time to provide that type of life-saving service for 28 years," Grossnickle said. "Whatever comes out of this, the membership of the Independent Hose Company will be recognized."
(c)2020 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.).