The science of the city: The fraternity of fire
By Paul Ruffins
The multi-columned mansions of the University of Maryland’s (UMD) Fraternity Row are an iconic symbol of collegiate life, a symbol that graces many campuses throughout the country. However, if you’re seeking the hottest action, cheapest room and board, deepest friendships and best career connections, Fraternity Row isn’t the first place to look. Instead, follow the flashing lights and screaming sirens a few blocks north, to 8115 Baltimore Avenue, home of the College Park Volunteer Fire Department (CPVFD). Officially designated Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Unit 12, CPVFD is one busy place when things heat up. Indeed, it’s one of the busiest firehouses in the area.
According Firehouse Magazine’s 2019 national run survey, Prince George’s County Fire Department (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. About half of PGFD’s approximately 2000 members are volunteers, and the county offers these first responders what they want: lots of opportunities to respond.
“CPVFD calls itself, ‘First Due to the U,’” says its Chief, Matthew Machala, “because the county’s fire command center would dispatch us as the first and nearest company to respond if there’s a fire or medical emergency on campus.” Firehouse 12’s responsibilities include protecting the university’s high rise buildings, stadiums full of spectators and dozens of laboratories packed with toxic chemicals. Firehouse 12, might also be the first or second department to respond to commercial or residential fires in nearby communities. Because it also has a foam truck, CPVFD is often the first team dispatched to emergencies involving large amounts of flammable liquids, such as an overturned gasoline tanker on the Beltway.
In 2019, CPVFD documented 3,177 runs, 1,697 of which were EMS calls. CPVFD members sometimes boast that theirs is the busiest all-student volunteer firehouse in the country. While their busyness goes without question, CPVFD is not all student volunteers, all the volunteers are full-time students from UMD or other local colleges. Like many other firehouses in the county, CPVFD is partly staffed by career personnel, too, who work side by side with the volunteers. And all of the firefighters, be they career or volunteer, are fully trained and ready to respond.
“One of the great challenges of recruiting and retaining volunteers is that they must undergo the same training and certifications as career firefighters and EMTs,” Machala noted. “It’s a commitment of almost 400 hours.” That training is critical for success, because Firehouse 12 only has two career EMTs assigned 24/7 and 3-5 career firefighters who work the 7-3 day shift, Monday through Friday when most student members are in class. The station is more fully staffed by student volunteers during later weekday shifts and round the clock on weekends.
CPVFD has had a long and productive relationship with UMD’s pioneering fire protection engineering program, which offers an undergraduate major, and master’s and Ph.D. degrees. Not all students enrolled in the program volunteer for the CPVFD, but some who have ridden with Firehouse 12 credit that experience as an important one in their becoming leaders in the field. Stephen Kerber, a former CPVF volunteer and now director of the Underwriters Laboratory’s Firefighter Safety Research Institute, deeply valued his time with the department. “A big part of my motivation for staying in graduate school to get my masters in engineering was really for the chance to keep living in Firehouse 12,” he said.
Students living full-time at firehouses in College Park, Hyattsville, Mount Rainier and other communities have the benefits of in-state tuition, and free room and board. Geff Greenwalt, one of 21 students who lived at Firehouse 12 in 2015 said, “We live here because we love it. If you polled everyone, and asked, ‘If you had a choice of going out and having a fun night out at a bar, getting a little drunk and meeting someone, or going to a house fire,?’ people would choose the house fire, hands down.”