Local emergency services officials maintained this week that a combined public safety training center is needed in Washington County despite comments made Tuesday by state legislators questioning whether a training center is necessary.
Kevin L. Lewis, the county's director of emergency services, said he thought gaining the delegation's support would be a matter of informing them about the advantages it would provide and the limitations of training resources currently available.
"We talk about this being a combined public safety training center for the purposes of educating all of our personnel ... (but) it's also going to require a great deal of education, even in our elected body, about the importance and needs, so the education's going to begin before the training center's even built," Lewis said.
The proposed $12.4 million training center to be built on the Hagerstown Community College campus was recommended in a May 2010 report by a study group that spent a year researching the idea.
The report suggested a first phase consisting of a 16,000-square-foot building with classrooms, a computer lab and a large meeting room, followed by a second phase consisting of an 8,000-square-foot building with a fitness room, simulation room, defensive tactics training space and audio/visual studio.
The report stressed the need for state and federal funding for the project in addition to city and county funds. But Tuesday, when state legislators were told the training center was part of the reason the Washington County Fire and Rescue Association is retaining about 20 percent of gaming revenue intended for fire and rescue companies and racking up hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and investments, delegation members were critical of the idea.
"Why do we need a training center in Washington County when we have one in Emmitsburg?" Del. LeRoy E. Myers Jr. asked then, referring to the National Fire Academy run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in Emmitsburg, Md.
"Don't we have a training center in Hagerstown? And aren't they willing to allow volunteers to use it?" state Sen. Christopher B. Shank asked.
Myers also questioned whether the proposed training center would be used full time.
"Guys, you build something, and there's upkeep, there's heat, there's electric, there's so many things that are maintained, and those expenses don't stop when you get the center built," he said.
Answers to many of those questions are explored in the 58-page concept paper issued by the study group last year, Lewis said.
According to that report, firefighting training currently takes place at a variety of locations, including the Hagerstown Fire Department's training center in Hagerstown, at individual fire stations, and at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute's training centers in Cresaptown, Md., and College Park, Md.
"Much of the training involves out-of-county travel, for both personnel and equipment," that report says. "Consolidating training at one location would greatly decrease travel time, would keep equipment available for emergencies, and would facilitate joint scheduling to ensure full course enrollments."
Lewis said the FEMA-run academy in Emmitsburg has a different purpose and provides a different level of training than the basic, entry-level training most in demand locally.
The Hagerstown Fire Department training center off Frederick Street is limited in its scheduling capacity and also in what it can offer because of its size and location, Lewis said.
Within Washington County, there are no propane facilities, which allow simulations in which beginning firefighters can practice operating equipment in the presence of heat and smoke, Washington County Sheriff Douglas W. Mullendore said.
"Now, most of what they do is they put a blindfold over top of their mask and it simulates being in a dark condition, but that's not really the true effect of what it's like to be in a structure fire," he said.
According to the 2010 report, the Hagerstown Fire Department reported the need for space where it could practice high-rise firefighting in a multistory structure with a standpipe system, as well as a driving course for emergency vehicle operators and a larger classroom facility with locker room amenities.
The proposed facility also would offer law-enforcement, corrections and emergency medical services training, according to the report.
"From the law enforcement perspective, it made sense that if there was going to be training facility, that we do a combined training facility, and the reason for that is because, particularly since 9/11, the activities that we do are more in tune with one another," Mullendore said. "We interact more than we ever did, so it makes sense to be able to train together so that we'd know what each other's responsibilities are and how we're going to interact."
Mullendore said from his perspective, the training center is necessary, but he isn't sure the timing is right.
"It's something that's needed currently, but whether or not, because of economic conditions and so forth, I don't know if it's necessarily something that's going to come about in the next four to five years," he said.
Washington County's latest Capital Improvement Plan shows the training center receiving its first county funds — $376,000 toward engineering and design — in fiscal year 2016.
Emergency services officials say training center is needed
A May 2010 report by a study group recommended the project which would be built at HCC
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