SNOW HILL– U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen visited Berlin Friday to highlight $400,000 in grant funding the Berlin Fire Company received.
Van Hollen, joined by Eric Smothers of the Maryland State Firemen’s Association, spoke at the Berlin Fire Company’s Main Street station Friday morning about the need for support for emergency responders. Van Hollen said $400,000 in federal Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program funding would help the Berlin Fire Company (BFC) replace outdated gear.
“Whether it’s at the local level, town level, city level, county level, state level or the federal level, all of us need to make sure we’re there for the firefighters that are there for us. That’s the overall message I wanted to deliver. This is one good example of our efforts to try to do that,” Van Hollen said.
BFC President David Fitzgerald said the fire company had applied for Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program funding to help fund the replacement of self-contained breathing apparatus, essentially air packs. The BFC hasn’t purchased any new air packs since between 2006 and 2008.
“We’re well overdue,” he said. “These air packs are life safety for all of our career and volunteer staff every day.”
He said the $399,371 grant would help the company purchase new air packs and upgrade its system at the firehouse so they can be refilled on site.
Van Hollen thanked the firefighters in attendance at Friday’s announcement and acknowledged the risks they took and the sacrifices they made as they were running toward danger.
“In addition to thanking you we wanted to make sure that we provided funds to help you in your efforts, to make sure you can do what you do in a way that helps better protect you,” he said.
Van Hollen told those present he was involved in ongoing efforts to provide additional funding to fire companies not only to purchase equipment but to modernize firehouse facilities. He said that since 2015, two key programs had provided $150 million to fire companies throughout Maryland. In addition, he worked with a bipartisan group to introduce the Fire Station Act to provide funding for facilities in need of upgrades.
“Over 53 % of fire stations around the country are in need of serious repair,” he said.
Smothers, noting that most fire stations were 50 or 60 years old, said the proposed $750 million grant program would help fire stations across the country with upgrades. He said the support provided by the federal government already had played key roles in keeping Maryland’s fire companies functioning safely.
“The grants Sen. Van Hollen was referencing have certainly helped a lot of volunteer entities not only here in Maryland but across our nation,” he said.
Here in Berlin, Fitzgerald said the Berlin Fire Company could benefit greatly from something like the Fire Station Act, as there are upgrades needed at the 1965 fire station on Main Street. He said a key concern there was the fact that the building didn’t have sprinklers, despite the fact that first responders slept there.
Among those in attendance for Friday’s announcement were Mark and Kathy Drew representing the Bishopville Volunteer Fire Department. They also have high hopes for the Fire Station Act. Their volunteers are currently working out of two small stations. The primary station isn’t even large enough to fit a new fire engine.
“You can’t buy a new truck and put it in there,” Kathy Drew said. “You can’t get them in the front bay.”
While fire department officials would love to simply build a new station, that’s not feasible. The 40-member volunteer department isn’t capable of raising the millions a new facility would cost.
“We’re hoping this bill that Sen. Van Hollen is try to push through comes to reality for us,” she said. “We priced out a brand-new fire house and we’re talking $5 million. There’s no way we can raise $5 million.”