Fire service vehicle panel with dials; icon with chief’s hat and “From the Command Center”; headshot of Steve Wantz

From the Command Center: Carroll County Commissioner Steve Wantz leads the way in public safety and service

Maryland native Steve Wantz has spent his entire adult life working with, and for, the public—first in the Baltimore County Fire Department and now as an elected commissioner in Carroll County. In a career spanning more than 45 years, he says the communication skills he honed as a firefighter now help him represent the citizens of his district.

“Communicating is one of the best tools that we have,” he explains. “The fire service gave me that common sense base, because when you pull up to the scene of an incident, what do you do? You put your heads together and say, ‘Okay, here’s what we're going to do. Let’s go.’ That’s how I operate to this day. I think it’s important to be responsive, transparent, and use common sense.”

Thirty years of serving Maryland’s communities through the fire service

Wantz traces his career in the fire service back to 1976 when he joined the Pleasant Valley Community Fire Company in Westminster, Maryland.

After devoting several years as a volunteer, he knew that public safety was his calling. He joined the neighboring Baltimore County Fire Department (BCoFD) in 1982 and spent the next 30 years as a career firefighter. He also worked his way up through the volunteer ranks in his home county, becoming the only person at Pleasant Valley to have served, at various times, as the fire chief, emergency medical services captain, and president. He also spent 12 years as a 9-1-1 dispatcher.

He looks back fondly on his days in the fire service and the bonds that are built among first responders. Ten years after his retirement from BCoFD, he still talks regularly with his “second family.”

“There’s that never-ending communication that occurs when you get involved in public safety. You work side-by-side, and your life depends on one another. And it’s a life that takes on a whole meaning of its own,” he says.

Fire communications: Yesterday and today

When Wantz thinks back to how the fire service shared information when he joined in the late 1970s to how first responders are now sending live video from the scene of a fire, he calls the shift in technology “night and day.”

“I remember when I was operating incidents on the highway, I’d walk up to the law enforcement on scene, and we’d talk face to face,” he recalls. “The advancements that have been made, from radio to computers to broadband, mean it’s now safer to operate on these scenes. We can talk on the radio and phone, share information, and coordinate more effectively with law enforcement and highway crews. We can talk mutual aid across county lines from Maryland to Pennsylvania to Virginia.”

In 2012, Wantz was finishing his last year of service at BCoFD when Congress passed the law establishing the First Responder Network Authority and tasked it with bringing the nationwide public safety broadband network to life. From his decades in public safety, he knew why FirstNet was needed.

“Public safety has to be able to talk with one another, and they’re not going to do that if they don’t have the tools to communicate correctly,” he says. “There's no doubt that what the federal government has accomplished and the law that was put in place to create FirstNet has paid dividends. Technology changes so rapidly. To have the FirstNet Authority stay ahead of that technology and work to provide the best tools and programs to public safety is a great benefit.”

Enhancing public safety in Carroll County

It was Wantz’s success in improving communications and transparency as president of the Carroll County Fire Chief Association that helped him win his first public election in 2014. He says he never had any intention of running for elected office but was persuaded that he could make a difference due to his experience.

“Communication is key to anything that you're doing—whether it's working for constituents or responding to the scene of an auto accident or a fire,” he explains.

Wantz is proud that Carroll County was the first school system in the state of Maryland to install FirstNet and push-to-talk capabilities on its school buses. The transition replaced bus drivers’ personal cell phones, which are illegal to use while driving and could be unreliable at times. Instead, over FirstNet the county can mass communicate, set up talk groups, and communicate with individual bus drivers or groups. He says he “hears nothing but positives” about the technology that came online in September 2020.

“I applaud the school system for taking the steps to implement this communications platform. Having that ability to be able to reach out to the drivers and give them critical information is priceless,” he says. “We have to do everything we can to protect the future of this country, and that’s our children. We are incredibly fortunate to have technology that helps us do that.”              

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