By Paul Ruffins

Can you name a matter of life and death in which Prince George’s County has become the most influential jurisdiction in the U.S.?

The answer is firefighting. People might guess New York, the biggest department, or Philadelphia, where Benjamin Franklin organized one of the first, but they’d be wrong.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Prince George’s County Fire and Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Department, “The Science of the City” column is launching a series of articles to explore  how Prince George’s County became a national pioneer in modern firefighting education, technology and personnel management. The series will also examine how the county is addressing the biggest challenges facing America’s fire and EMS services.

Consider Firehouse #1, the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department (HVFD) at 6200 Belcrest Road. Firefighting has traditionally been considered a job for local blue-collar men. So how do HVFD’s alumni include a former fire chief of Atlanta, Ga., Norfolk, Va. and the District; various doctoral recipients; and the current minority leader of the New Jersey State Senate? The answer requires understanding a bit of history.

No 1 on hat
A volunteer at Firehouse #1 with all his turnout gear.
Photo credit: Paul Ruffins

Big cities, like Boston and New York, began organizing bucket brigades before the Revolutionary War. And in more agricultural areas, back then, all most people could do, in the face of a fire, was pull out as many belongings as possible and then watch the building burn. 

Over time, businesses and the wealthy turned to fire insurance to protect them from devastating losses. But the general public remained vulnerable, and their concerns were justified; Chicago’s great fire of 1870, along with innovations like electricity and high-rise buildings, understandably elevated the public’s fears. The push for safety regulations began in the late 1800s. Underwriters Laboratories was founded in 1894 to study electrical fire risks for insurers, and the National Fire Protection Association, which evaluates local fire departments to set insurance costs, followed in 1896. 

According to Fire Call: A History of the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department, by F. X. Geary, Hyattsville started organizing the HVFD in 1886 — the same year the city incorporated. The town had three devastating fires by the middle of March, and raised $27 to buy a fire engine, which consisted of a cart with a water barrel mounted on top, a hand pump and a hose. It was chartered in 1888, and by 1904, Hyattsville’s fire department had assumed its current structure as an independent nonprofit corporation that selected its own fire officers and board of directors. By World War II, virtually every small town in Maryland had a fire department organized the same way.  

Who’s in charge here? 

From the very beginning of these departments, Hyattsville and other towns experienced serious conflicts over funding and supervising this absolutely critical public service, run by volunteers who didn’t answer to a mayor or city council. Hyattsville encountered difficulties in this approach early on and filed a lawsuit in 1911, seeking to replace all the department’s officers. 

But HVFD faced a bigger problem that still persists in the estimated 23,000 U.S. volunteer fire companies, companies that protect more than 100 million, or approximately 33% of the country’s population: These departments are pressed to retain enough capable volunteers. In 1930, the city hired its first paid firefighter. Over the following decades, the number of city-paid personnel increased, bringing disputes with volunteers and clashes with taxpayers over costs. 

By the mid 1960s, the fast-developing county was also paying firefighters to supplement volunteer companies. 

Labor relations within HVFD became so bad that when Prince George’s County sought to coordinate fire protection under the new county charter in 1970, Hyattsville welcomed the move. By 1971, the city’s paid firemen were employees of the new Prince George’s Fire Department (PGFD). The volunteer corporation that previously oversaw the firehouse was granted all the equipment and real estate. Though the City of Hyattsville is out of the firefighting business, the HVFD is still on the job. 

Today, the PGFD is America’s most active department in which civilians can still participate. According to the 2019 Firehouse National Run Survey, the PGFD was the 12th busiest in the country, answering a total of 152,586 fire and EMS calls that year. The department’s 30,413 fire calls were eighth highest in the country. The department has somewhere between 2,000 and 2,200 members. About half are volunteers, but volunteers own or control 37 of the county’s 42 fire, ambulance or rescue companies. Most of those companies are struggling to recruit and retain new members, but they still have an important advantage over the rest of the nation.

The university to the rescue 

The University of Maryland (UMD) has been a major player in local fire protection since Dr. Henry McDonnell, chair of its chemistry department, helped start the College Park Volunteer Fire Department, in 1925.  

In 1930, the university, in partnership with the Maryland State Firemen’s Association, established what is now known as the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute to train firefighters from all over the state. Trainees encounter real fires in a smoke-streaked burn building on Campus Drive in College Park, just east of Route 1.

Two more innovations elevated the PGFD to a national mecca for fire education. In the 1950s, UMD created the nation’s leading undergraduate and graduate program in fire protection engineering (FPE). There are still just two others: the University of Worcester in Massachusetts, and Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, Ca. However, only UMD can offer its students extensive firefighting experience because the Worcester and San Luis Obispo fire departments don’t take volunteers.

Under longtime FPE department chairman Dr. John L. Bryan, the program pioneered the concept of the sackroom (or bunkroom) in which student volunteers live at local firehouses full time in return for free training, room and board. Live-in students from out of state qualify for in-state tuition. The idea caught on and spread to many local firehouses, bringing the county a continuous flow of some of the nation’s best-educated volunteers. They, in turn, carry their training into other departments, industries and careers.

Jeremy Jordan, who is the current president of the Branchville Volunteer Fire Department (BVFD), joined the BVFD while he was at UMD, majoring in criminal justice. He is impressed by the caliber of volunteers at his firehouse: “Several Branchville volunteers have gone on to become doctors. We’ve been particularly successful in recruiting women pre-meds and public health majors,” he noted. “They feel that having real world experience as an EMT gives them an advantage in getting into graduate school.”

Kevin King, HVFD president, said student volunteers “tend to be smart, fit and enjoy living in a group.” 

Officers edit
HVFD Chief Ryan Pidgeon and President Kevin King
Photo credit: Paul Ruffins

Hyattsville Fire Chief Ryan Pidgeon pointed to drawbacks, though: “The downside is that they take about a year to get fully trained and graduate a few years later,” he said. “However, we’ve learned to plan, train and recruit around that four-year cycle.”  

But just because someone has graduated doesn’t mean they’ve left the firehouse family or the profession. Jessica Doermann earned a master’s in FPE from UMD in 2019 and currently works for a large engineering firm in New York City. “When I was 21, during my first ride-along with Hyattsville, we went to an active fire in Brentwood,” she said. “Honestly, it was the most exciting thing I’d ever done in my life, and I got trained as a volunteer as soon as I could. When I come home to visit my parents, I ride with HVFD as often as I can. Back in New York, I feel it gives me a real career advantage. Every single construction project involves some level of fire engineering. Most engineers have never personally experienced how fire moves through a building, but I’ve smelled the smoke and felt the heat.” 

Don’t miss part 2 in this series, which will explore the complexity of managing Prince George’s County Fire Department’s career and volunteer members.