If you need help, does Prince George’s Co. have the firefighter staffing to provide it?

Firefighters and paramedics in Prince George’s County, Maryland, are kept busy, especially with their jurisdiction including the Capital Beltway, two universities, a stadium and the Gaylord National Harbor Resort. But like all emergency response agencies around the country, the department is facing staffing issues that the union says is growing more and more serious.

Currently, the department has about 1,800 professional firefighters and paramedics. However, the number of volunteer firefighters is declining, straining resources even more.

The union that represents the county’s emergency responders said this past weekend that staffing shortages left 16 firehouses short of what’s considered the national standard for staffing, and which the county’s labor contract requires.

“Sixteen of our Fire and EMS stations had those fire engines reduced from a total of four personnel to three,” said Andrew Pantelis, the district vice president of IAFF Local 1619. “We’ve made great leaps and strides to be able to get us to a safe number and that’s not only a safety concern for our employees, for our firefighters, for best practices, but also for the communities that we serve.”

The 16 firehouses that saw the staffing shortages this past Saturday and Sunday were Companies 805 in Capitol Heights, 816 Bowie Northview, 818 Glenn Dale, 820 Upper Marlboro, 823 Forestville, 830 Landover Hills, 832 Allentown Road 835 Greenbelt, 838 Chapel Oaks, 840 Brandywine, 841 Calverton, 842 Oxon Hill-Glassmanor, 846 Largo, 844 Chillum, 845 Croom, and 848 Lanham.

Pantelis said having one less responder on each engine means “the longer that it’s going to take to put out that fire (and) to search for trapped occupants.”

He said recruiting more firefighters in the county isn’t the hang-up.

“We have more of a hiring process challenge and also, quite frankly, a budgetary challenge,” he said.

Fire department responds

In response to the union’s concerns, Prince George’s County Fire and EMS Department released a statement saying recruiting and retaining employees is a challenge for all public safety agencies in the region.

“The Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department considers the safety of our personnel to be of the utmost importance,” the statement said. “Immediately following a conversation with the firefighter’s union president regarding the increased workload of our firefighters, the Fire/EMS Department elected to reduce staffing at some stations rather than completely close” any stations.

The department said it is “aggressively” working to address staffing shortages. Currently, 18 fire recruits are scheduled to complete their training in October. All told, the department is seeking to hire an additional 80 employees this fiscal year.

Panetelis, with the union, said it can take as long as a year to get a candidate through the hiring process so they can join the fire academy, which itself takes several months to graduate. Sometimes, that can mean a recruit just ends up working for another, more efficient department instead.

While he praised the department for making service and safety enhancements, as well as adding more ambulances and other equipment improvements, he said the county isn’t keeping up with what it needs to on the hiring end.

“In this last budget process, we were able to get … 96 firefighters in the budget. We still haven’t seen them hired,” said Pantelis. “But that is still not enough. It’s putting a Band-Aid on our existing problem.”

Council member: ‘It comes down to numbers’

He said another 100 additional firefighters still need to be hired.

County Council member Krystal Oriadha, who chairs the committee in charge of public safety, said she pushed for an increase in funding to hire more firefighters and paramedics, but lamented that resources were limited.

“It comes down to numbers and what is being prioritized from the administration versus what the priority on the council side; and we always have to negotiate,” said Oriadha. “And I think because we had that shortfall, this budget cycle, it put us all in a position that we weren’t prepared for. I don’t think any of us thought we would be $60 million short.”

Oriadha said modernizing the hiring process is one of the quickest fixes available, and Pantelis said he’s seeing “some improvements … in modernizing our hiring process to make it more efficient, effective, and most importantly, make it quicker so that we have a faster turnaround and we don’t lose interest or don’t lose qualified applicants to surrounding jurisdictions.”

However, he later added, “It’s just not close to enough.”

John Domen

John started working at WTOP in 2016 after having grown up in Maryland listening to the station as a child. While he got his on-air start at small stations in Pennsylvania and Delaware, he's spent most of his career in the D.C. area, having been heard on several local stations before coming to WTOP.

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