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Army departure leaves fire and rescue gap at Ritchie

July 27, 1998

photos: RICHARD T. MEAGHER / staff photographer

Departure of Army leaves gapsBy BRENDAN KIRBY / Staff Writer

FORT RITCHIE - If a fire breaks out anywhere on this base's 638 acres, the Army puts it out.

If someone commits a crime here, the military police investigate it.

In a little more than two months, the Army will be gone.

--cont from news--

The resulting void has Washington County officials scrambling to figure out who will provide those basic public safety services.

"The federal government is still responsible for ensuring that Fort Ritchie is taken care of," said Army spokesman Steve Blizard. "What that will entail in terms of money from the federal government is what everybody wants to see worked out."

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Officials from the Washington County Volunteer Fire & Rescue Association, the Army and the PenMar Development Corp. have been meeting regularly for weeks on the issue and plan to meet again this week.

"It's almost a daily thing right now," said Jim LaFleur, deputy executive director of PenMar, which was created to oversee the property's transition to civilian use.

FirehouseAfter the base closes on Sept. 30, the Army will leave behind a small caretaker force to maintain the buildings.

The Army will also reimburse civilian fire companies near the base for a one-year transition period, officials said. PenMar officials and the Army are still negotiating how much that will be.

Washington County officials must determine the best way to provide fire, police and emergency medical services to the area after the transition period.

"We're just not there yet," LaFleur said. "It's a complicated issue."

If all goes according to plan, the former base could have a significant daytime population.

Already, the PenMar Development Corp. leases housing to soldiers and a building to the International Masonry Institute. PenMar officials envision turning the base into a technology and training center.

One of the biggest issues is who provides fire protection.

Currently, the Army has an engine company on the base. At one time, the base had two engine companies, but Blizard said one of the companies already has been transferred to Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md.

The remaining 13 firefighters and equipment will be sent to Fort Detrick when the base closes, Blizard said. Some of the firefighters will be stationed at Site R, the underground Pentagon, in Franklin County, Pa.

"The county is looking for the best way to provide the best-possible fire protection for the entire area," said County Commissioner Ronald L. Bowers, who is on PenMar's board of directors.

Blizard said the Army expects to see a fire protection proposal by Aug. 6.

The Smithsburg and Leitersburg volunteer fire companies are the two closest departments in Maryland. The volunteer fire company in Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., also serves the area.

The cost to those departments of expanding their coverage area has not been determined, officials said.

Bowers said the long-term solution could take many shapes.

The three fire companies could divide the territory. Or perhaps the Blue Ridge Mountain Fire Co. will be the primary fire department for the Fort Ritchie area and Washington County will provide it with funds.

"I don't want a boundary to become the main reason we establish fire and rescue or police support," Bowers said.

Although a recent study of Washington County's fire and rescue system recommended against creating new departments, Bowers said a substation may be the right answer in this case.

"The day may come when Leitersburg and Smithsburg have to man a substation," he said.

Bowers said he would like to explore the idea of creating a substation that could coordinate police coverage, fire protection and emergency medical services.

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