By Paul Ruffins

Paul Ruffins is a citizen scientist and professor of curiosity.

To celebrate the Prince George’s Fire Department’s (PGFD) 50th anniversary, the College Park Here & Now brings you Paul Ruffins’ research into the issues our firefighters and EMTs face. This is the second in a series of articles about the department; earlier pieces in the series are available at streetcarsuburbs.news/tag/science-of-the-city/

“The oldest cliché in firefighting, is that when an old lady calls 911, she doesn’t know which company will respond and doesn’t care why they were dispatched or whether they’re paid or volunteers. She just wants them to get there fast,” said Patrick Marlatt, deputy director of the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute at the University of Maryland. The institute’s scorched burn-building allows firefighters to experience the heat, smoke and stress of a live fire in a controlled environment. 

PGFD responded to more than 33,000 fire emergencies and 122,000 EMS calls in 2020, making it the 12th busiest department in the nation. That same year, it ranked as the nation’s busiest department that relies on a combination of both career members and volunteers. Marlatt’s goal is to train both the 991 paid firefighters and EMTs and the approximately 1,000 active volunteers to all meet the same professional standards and work together seamlessly. 

The burn building at the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute.
Credit: Paul Ruffins

In her Virginia Polytechnic Ph.D. thesis, Natalie Heffernan concluded that, when comparing departments operating with a complement of volunteers to a wholly paid force, departments with a combination of the two deliver performance and response times approaching those of paid departments, and at a lower cost. However, combination departments can be challenging to manage and may experience more internal conflict. 

Managing the PGFD is, indeed, challenging, in part because firehouses can be staffed at least eight different ways. Some rely on all-volunteer crews, while others are staffed only by paid career firefighters. Many firehouses use career members for day shifts and volunteers on evenings and weekends.  

In addition, PGFD’s volunteer fire departments are more powerful than volunteer departments in many other parts of the country. Local volunteer departments are independent nonprofit corporations that pick their own fire chiefs and own their own stations and equipment. In 2019, volunteer companies in the county owned 33 firehouses and 146 pieces of major apparatus, while the county only owned 10 stations and 128 pieces of apparatus. 

With its mix of volunteers and career members, PGFD has a complex budget to juggle, as well. The department covers some of the volunteer companies’ fuel, maintenance and equipment costs and provides a modest pension to individual volunteers who have been with the department for 25 years or more. In 2021, the department spent $21.5 million to support the volunteer companies. In the same period, PGFD budgeted just over $185 million for wages and benefits, at an average cost of approximately $175,000 per paid employee. By relying on a substantial cadre of volunteers, the department saves some $40 million in wages and benefits annually, and millions more in equipment and real estate costs.

New officers of the Prince George’s County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association being sworn in at the Branchville firehouse in September 2021.
Credit: Paul Ruffins

 PGFD uses the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) standards to measure its performance. The department meets the NFPA requirement of always dispatching at least four people per engine or ladder truck and two per ambulance. In 2021, PGFD projected that the department would meet the standard of a four-minute travel time 63% of the time. An excellent score would be 90%, and the department is pushing to achieve that by 2025.   

According to the analysis of the county’s 2021 operating budget, PGFD’s primary challenge with response time is that most volunteer companies are understaffed. For example, if the station closest to a fire only has seven people on duty, NFPA standards say it couldn’t deploy its engine and its ladder truck at the same time. It could send five people on the engine, and leave two to staff an ambulance. The ladder truck would have to be dispatched from another company further away, lengthening response time. 

Former PGFD Fire Chief Marc Bashoor notes that if you took a fire station and drew a circle around the people it could reach in four minutes, (the NFPA standard) College Park, Hyattsville, Mount Rainier and other towns would have several overlapping circles of stations that could reach them in that time. But some communities wouldn’t have any station close enough to them to achieve the same response standard.  Bashoor believes it would be safer if the county could merge or move volunteer companies to create fewer stations staffed with more people in places efficient to enhance response time to all citizens..   

Fortunately, new technologies can help mitigate the impacts of less than optimal response times. According to Dr. Jim Milke, chairman of the University of Maryland’s fire safety engineering program, the most critical period in a fire emergency is the time between when the fire starts and when it is detected. “America’s dramatic 60 to 70% decrease in fire deaths and losses since 1970 hasn’t primarily resulted from [our] becoming better at fighting fires,” he explained. “It came from firefighters pushing for better building codes. The universal adoption of residential smoke alarms means that, in many cases, the fire department doesn’t even have to respond, because homeowners are quickly alerted when the fire is still small enough to put out themselves.”

As a result, the PGFD has been aggressively inspecting residences to ensure that smoke alarms are correctly installed and working, and the department will install alarms at no cost for anyone who needs them. With their Close Before You Doze campaign, PGFD is also advocating to change the building code to require self-closing bedroom doors, which significantly increase the odds of surviving a fire. 

According to data compiled by the Maryland’s Office of the State Fire Marshal, the state’s average number of fire deaths per year has been decreasing over the past 35 years: In 1975, 184 Marylanders lost their lives in fires; that number dropped to 71 in 2010, and in 2020, it fell to 51. Fire deaths in Prince George’s County fluctuate, with a high of 15 in 2013 to a low of five in 2014. Last year, 12 county residents died in a total of 11 separate fires. 

Despite being chronically short of both paid and volunteer members, the PGFD has some real strengths. Its budget is increasing, and its response times are improving.  Many volunteer department fire chiefs and senior officers are also experienced career members of neighboring departments in Maryland, D.C., Baltimore, and Northern Virginia. Such overlap can reduce tensions between career firefighters and volunteer firefighters. Another plus for the county is the innovative bunkhouse program, which was pioneered by the university and the College Park Volunteer Fire Company. The program allows students from local colleges to become live-in volunteer firefighters while keeping up with their studies. 

Stay tuned to the Here & Now for a deeper look into the sustainability of volunteer firefighting in the city and county, alike.