Weekly Letter: Key Bridge, Car Rally, and Fire

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I suspect that our ancestors first created governments to deliver public safety - to protect the tribe from danger. And public safety remains the most fundamental obligation of government at every level, in my opinion.

But fear motivates people, and it gets used a lot, including in politics, on social media, and in budget town halls. If “this” doesn’t happen, “that” will happen, and “that” is scary.

The collapse of the Key Bridge this week instilled fear in many of us. It’s terrifying to think about what those workers experienced as the bridge collapsed below them. But it’s inspiring to know that Anne Arundel County fire and rescue workers jumped out of bed and rushed to the scene, hoping to find survivors in the water. 

It’s been comforting for me to be in the room when career government professionals from the Coast Guard, Army Corps of Engineers, Maryland State Police, and local police and fire are coordinating efforts. And I’m proud that we have worthy vessels and modern equipment for our highly-trained men and women to contribute to that effort.

A lot has been said recently about resourcing the Anne Arundel County Police. We do have fewer officers per capita than many other jurisdictions, but that shouldn’t make our residents feel unsafe. We have seventy more officers than we had when I took office, and our overall investment in staffing and crime-fighting tools is up 42% over five years. With 911 calls down slightly and priority #1 calls down 21% over the last four years, our residents have every reason to feel more safe, rather than less safe. Here’s an example of their outstanding service.

Just before midnight on Sunday night, our Police Department was notified that a car rally - the kind where hundreds of vehicles take over roads, intersections, and parking areas, overwhelming police with their numbers and demonstrating dangerous maneuvers - was moving toward Crofton from Bowie up Route 301. They were headed for the lot in front of the Giant at 301 and 424. Our patrol officers mobilized and blocked access, forcing them to continue north on 301. 

Next, they headed toward the Target on Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie. Our officers got there first again, and used their vehicles to funnel them back onto the highway, with no injuries reported.

From there, the rally drove toward the intersection of Dorsey and Ridge Road in Hanover. Again, our officers got there first in large numbers, and once again they funneled what was by then over 1000 vehicles out of the area. 

That’s when the organizers decided that it was time to leave Anne Arundel County, and many of their frustrated followers headed home. Anne Arundel County Police did what other agencies have been unable to do. With brilliant coordination and an overwhelming show of force, they restored safety to our streets, showing us that our investments are paying off.

Down in south county where I live, putting out fires can be a challenge, because most communities have no public water systems. We have wells.

At 7:56 pm and 7:57 pm on Saturday, March 9, calls came in reporting a fire at the building on Central Avenue where Statewide Septic and Mid-Atlantic Outdoor Equipment do business. One reported that the building was fully engulfed in flames and that explosions were coming from inside.

Five engines, five tankers, two trucks, a medic unit, and a rescue squad were immediately dispatched to the scene. The shift commander was on site four minutes after the first call came in, and observed that 60%-75% of the building was in flames. He was warned that the building contained combustible fluids and materials. He quickly determined that this would be a defensive operation, to protect the parts of the building and equipment not already burning.

Immediately adjacent to a corner of the building, well within the collapse zone of the wall, was a 60,000 gallon underground water tank. It was too close to operate safely and would only have provided 16 minutes of water to a fire that would need much more. Instead, the commander ordered three engines to function as relays to pump water from the county’s 300,000 gallon tank at the Southern District Public Works facility a half mile down the road. That provided an uninterrupted supply for the next five hours as the fire was put out and millions of dollars of equipment were saved. No injuries were reported.

In the days after the fire, a social media story spread suggesting that the response was flawed, and that a 2019 decision to staff a tanker at the Riva Station with a cross staffing model rather than a full time driver was a contributing factor. That tanker was not dispatched because its station was the lead responder and all personnel were assigned to essential apparatus. Its 3000 gallons of water would have been irrelevant.

Nevertheless, the sense of fear among residents that south county was unsafe had spread quickly, so Chief Wolford and her team hosted a community meeting at the Lothian Station last Friday, and I joined them.

The most consequential moment of that meeting for me was when Assistant Chief Schultz - who previously served as chief of operations for Washington, D.C. Fire Department - talked about how as a south county resident he used to lobby for upgrades to staffing and apparatus at the neglected south county stations. He then listed the progress we’ve made over the last five years. It’s a pretty extraordinary list of improvements, and tells a very different story than the alarmist posts circulating on social media. 

Galesville station was rebuilt at a new location closer to more homes, with space for larger apparatus. After opening in 2020, it received a fifth firefighter on all shifts, an EMS supervisor on all shifts, a battalion chief, a new 3000-gallon tanker, a new engine with double the water capacity of the old one, and has a new ladder truck on order.

Woodland Beach got a new engine that carries 250 gallons more than the old one and a fire boat. Riva got a new shift commander on all four shifts and replacement of rescue and extrication tools for rescue engine 3. Harwood Lothian got a new 1500 gallon engine and a new 4000 gallon tanker. Deale got a new 1500 gallon engine, a new 3000 gallon tanker, and a fifth firefighter on all shifts.

Avalon Shores got a fifth firefighter on all shifts, a staffed medic unit, and a new fire boat. Annapolis Neck got a new pumper tanker and a new dive rescue boat. West Annapolis got increased staffing on all shifts for basic life support ambulance 409 and has both a new engine and new ladder truck on order. 

Just recently, Public Works installed a new underground water tank at the Farm Bureau building in Davidsonville to supplement the 163 similar tanks that are maintained throughout areas of south county where no public water is available.

Public safety does matter, but so do facts. They tell a story in Anne Arundel County that should make our residents proud and secure. Our tax dollars are being carefully spent to deliver the professionalism and resources that public safety agencies in our modern world require. Of that I am confident, and I hope you are too.

Until next week …

Steuart Pittman

Anne Arundel County Executive