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Firefighter relocation may delay responses

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Posted on: July 10, 2024

By BODE RAMSAY AND SHARON O’MALLEY

City officials oppose a county plan to reallocate paid firefighters away from stations near College Park. Shown, the Branchville Volunteer Fire Co. & Rescue Squad, whose staff is entirely volunteer.
Courtesy of Branchville Volunteer Fire Co. & Rescue Squad

The Prince George’s County Circuit Court on June 28 denied a request by College Park, Greenbelt and Berwyn Heights to stop a plan to move paid firefighters from the Greenbelt and Berwyn Heights fire stations to elsewhere in the county.

The three jurisdictions filed a request for a temporary injunction against the plan, saying removing 24 career firefighters and emergency medical personnel from Greenbelt and six from Berwyn Heights will endanger “countless lives … as response times to fire and medical emergencies will be lengthened.”

The county also is pulling five firefighters from the Bowie Volunteer Fire Department and 20 from the county’s Bunker Hill station, for a total of 55.

“The damage is already done,” College Park Mayor Fazlul Kabir told College Park Here & Now last week, noting that the moves started on June 30. “The staffing reallocation will be definitely impacting College Park residents, even though they’re not pulling any staff from our two fire departments.”

Those two departments, the College Park Fire Department and the Branchville Volunteer Fire Co. & Rescue Squad, are located within city limits. The Berwyn Heights Volunteer Fire Department & Rescue Squad also serves College Park, as do fire stations in Greenbelt and other nearby jurisdictions.

The College Park station is staffed by both volunteers and paid firefighters, while the Branchville company relies solely on volunteers.

In a meeting last week with Prince George’s County Fire Chief Tiffany Green, Kabir and other city officials expressed their concern that relying on volunteers — especially during the summer when University of Maryland (UMD) students, who make up the bulk of the city’s unpaid firefighters, are not in the city — puts College Park residents at risk, the mayor said.

Kabir said the Branchville station is unable to answer up to 30% of the emergency calls that are coming in “because no one is at the fire station. So firefighters from other fire stations respond. It’s definitely not the same as someone coming close from College Park.”

He added: “Definitely with the situation, many College Park firefighters will be busy addressing incidents in Greenbelt … and other areas instead of College Park, and then maybe a call [comes] from College Park and they won’t be able to attend them. … In the end, response time will go up, so there’s the concern.”

In a statement released when she announced the county’s plan, Green said moving county-paid firefighters and Emergency Medical Service (EMS) personnel out of the four stations — Berwyn Heights, College Park, Bowie and Bunker Hill — comes during peak time for summer vacations, which “will critically strain an already short-staffed system. The staffing plan repositions staff to better account for these realities.”

“What we want the public to understand, even specifically College Park, is that the reason why we’re putting this plan in effect is to ensure the health and welfare of our personnel,” Green said in an interview with College Park Here & Now. “The extra positions will fill holes and callbacks when someone calls in sick on, like, a Friday or Saturday. We’ll have extra [firefighters] in those shifts so that they can immediately fill that position without having to call someone back at the end of the day. … We don’t want to hold people over and we don’t want to call them back.” 

Green added: “I live in Prince George’s County, and like everyone else that lives in this community, we want our services to come in a timely manner.” 

The chief noted that the county’s Fire and EMS Department faces a staffing shortage of 251 career firefighters, and their replacements have been difficult to recruit since the pandemic.

“Last year was probably our hardest year,” Green said. “We reached kind of our breaking point last year. … We used to see [turnover] of 20, maybe 25, but we were up to 40 at a time for [last] year.” 

She added that the county executive has approved funding for 150 new firefighters for fiscal year 2025. In addition, 32 firefighters will graduate from training this month and 53 began training in early June.

“That’s the largest amount of firefighters Prince George’s County has been allocated to hire in 30 years,” Green said. 

Green said her department will re-evaluate the reallocation plan in October.

“We’ll sit down and look at … what our mandatory overtime looks like and see what adjustments we can make to put these firefighters back into the station,” Green said. “We did not put a timetable on it at all.”

“Even though she’s saying it’s only temporary, there still is temporary damage,” Kabir said. “We’ll have to watch things. In October when the assessment is done, hopefully things are on track in getting the new recruitments.”

“In the meantime,” he added, “we’re just praying we don’t have a serious situation.”

City officials extracted four promises from the chief during their meeting, Kabir said.

First, Green assured them that the staffing plan is temporary, and said the county anticipates the fire houses will be fully restaffed by next spring, he said.

Second, she pledged to regularly communicate about fire station staffing with city leaders and residents, who learned of the plan from the media rather than from the county, Kabir said.

Next, the chief agreed to supply city leaders with data about service calls and staff retention and to answer future questions. “I don’t know how many service calls Greenbelt made to College Park because we don’t have the data,” Kabir said.

Finally, in response to concerns about the length of time it takes for volunteers to receive clearance to start working — up to six months compared with 30 days in some neighboring counties — Green explained that a new online system could fast-track at least part of the process, Kabir said.

“We have to keep an eye on those kinds of changes coming in the next few months,” he said.

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