One of the more unique fire fighting forces in Maryland is that of Baltimore County. Its combination service consists of several volunteer fire companies working in concert with the all paid Baltimore County Fire Department Maryland’s oldest municipal county fire agency. This revered and unique cooperative force protects a large suburban county surrounding Baltimore City.
In the middle 1800s the county area surrounding Baltimore becomes known as “The Belt” home to various mills and industrial complexes. Through the 1870s, mills and adjacent company villages increasingly fall victim to fire. The closest firefighting resources are the steam-powered fire companies from the by then mostly paid Baltimore City Fire Department. In 1878, the Waverly Fire Department organizes as the first in the county. The Towsontown Fire Company forms soon after, in the county seat known today simply as Towson. Local residents fund both the county paying for the fire houses and apparatus. While better than nothing this is inadequate for protecting the developing industrial areas surrounding Baltimore.
By 1881, city budget tightening brings a request that the county pay an up front fee for fire protection. Negotiations for a lesser amount are fruitless the city to fight fire in the county no more. With only two volunteer fire companies, County Commissioners contract with Charles T. Holloway. A past Chief Engineer and Fire Inspector of the Baltimore City Department, Holloway also began the city’s Insurance Fire Patrol. He also designs and builds chemical fire engines and hook and ladders and recently helped form the Pittsburgh Fire Department. Holloway agrees to help create a county fire department over which he will serve as Chief Engineer for six months.
In July 1881, the Waverly Fire Department disbands directed to turn their station and apparatus over to the new county fire department. On September 1, the Baltimore County Fire Department begins with seven horse-drawn chemical engine companies all but one built by Holloway. These are housed in as many fire stations in “The Belt” each including the Waverly Station with paid firefighters. The more distant Towsontown company remains volunteer with just a hook and ladder. Property of the Towsontown Fire Company transfers in 1883 to the County Department although it remains reliant on volunteers. On January 8, 1884, Chief Engineer Holloway resigns, his six-month tenure having lasted several years.
By the first half of 1888, the County Fire Department has nine stations each with a chemical engine plus four hook and ladders. The county owned Towsontown Station still relies on volunteers with a similar operation developing in Catonsville. On June 1, Baltimore City annexes the northern 2-miles and western 1-mile of “The Belt”. Seven county fire stations are lost adding apparatus, firefighters, horses and equipment to the Baltimore City Fire Department. The county department is left with fire houses in Highlandtown and Canton each with chemical engines plus two hook and ladders one in Canton the other at volunteer operated Towsontown.
In subsequent months the department rebuilds. In 1890, the new Catonsville Station opens under the county department the volunteers at Towson replaced soon after by paid personnel as well. More county stations follow by 1892. In 1894, the county department begins adding steam-powered pumping engines. About the turn of the century, various volunteer companies form often funded in part by the county bringing suggestions by 1901 the paid county department with its 10 stations be abolished. One volunteer group the Sparrows Point Volunteer Fire Department has seven companies in as many fire houses protecting the expanding Maryland Steel Company complex and shipyard in the southeast county.
On January 1, 1919, the city again annexes over 46 square miles from the county this time on all three sides plus a smaller southern portion from Anne Arundel County. This creates the boundaries of Baltimore City and County as known today. Lost are eight county fire houses plus six volunteer companies. As before, the Baltimore County Fire Department is left with meager resources -13 personnel for one engine now staffed with paid personnel at Towson, one engine at Catonsville and a driver assigned to the county-owned engine of the Pikesville volunteers. Nineteen volunteer departments remain however only about 10 have modern apparatus. Lost are 39 paid personnel, eight motorized engines and two hook and ladders. The County Department will not operate as many engines again until 1943 and it will take until 1949 before they have another ladder truck.
In subsequent years, the County Department rebuilds operating at times from barns as well as taking over other recently defunct volunteer companies such as in Essex and Relay. In April 1942, the County Department begins ambulance service from three of its stations. After World War II, growth brings tract housing and industry seeking spacious locations near skilled but less costly labor. The suburban building boom that follows absorbs once rural areas especially near the city line. Various new volunteer companies form as the County Department also expands to meet the growing demand.
In 1954, radio communications begin from a central dispatch facility in the new Towson Station. In 1957, a paid fire department under Bethlehem Steel replaces the volunteers at Sparrows Point consolidating to a single new firehouse. At the close of the 1950s, the County Department has 14 engines, one ladder truck, one tanker and six ambulances from 10 stations. There are 31 volunteer company stations including at least two ambulance companies plus several campus facility, military and industrial departments.
The 1960s bring further expansion of the County Department as the proliferation of volunteer companies wane. By decades end, the County Department has 22 engines, five ladder trucks, one tanker, eight ambulances and several special units from 18 stations. There are 33 volunteer company stations including two ambulance companies plus facility, military and industrial departments all operating as a cooperative force.
In the early 1970s the County Department like the city begins paramedic ambulance service. In subsequent years and decades, the Baltimore County Fire Department expands further adding more stations including paramedic ambulance only facilities. In 1987, the Sparrows Point department goes to the County Department becoming Station 57. The latest county station opened in 2009 a replacement multi-service facility for Parkton Station 60 in the rural northern county.
Baltimore County’s fire rescue service is provided by a unique system that includes an all career County Fire Department with 25 stations operating 30 engines, 9 ladders and 30 paramedic ambulances. This agency works in unison with various volunteer companies also with an impressive fleet of resources including engines, tankers, ladders, rescue trucks and paramedic ambulances. While other counties in Maryland now have municipal county fire departments these typically came after World War II. The Baltimore County Fire Department is the oldest such entity in Maryland and is one of the more unique cooperative municipal paid and volunteer fire and medical service agencies in the nation.