Prince George’s Co. prompts lawsuit over impending ‘temporary reallocation’ of firefighters

A fire broke out at a home near FedEx Field on Friday, minutes before Prince George’s County Fire officials were supposed to gather in Capitol Heights to give an update on a staffing plan that calls for the relocation of some firefighters — a move that has some municipalities going to court.

Crews that responded came from as far away as Bladensburg, and no one was hurt in the fire. County leaders said it demonstrated how technology and collaboration led to quick and effective responses when calls come in.

Hours before, the cities of Greenbelt, College Park and Berwyn Heights filed a lawsuit against the county and its fire department in a quest to stop staffing changes set to take effect on Sunday. They are asking a judge for a temporary restraining order to keep what the department calls a temporary reallocation of some 50 firefighters from going through.

Prince George’s County Fire and EMS Department Chief Tiffany Green has ordered some 55 career firefighters who work in the Bunker Hill station in Brentwood, as well as volunteer stations in Greenbelt, Berwyn Heights and Bowie, to help cover shortages in other stations around the county.

Prince George’s County Fire and EMS Department Chief Tiffany Green has ordered some 55 career firefighters to help cover shortages in other stations around the county. (WTOP/John Domen)

She doesn’t view it as an ideal move, but said that it’s been done before and needs to be done again to keep other fire houses staffed during the summer, when people tend to take vacations.

“This isn’t the first time that we’ve had to redeploy our staffing, obviously, to make sure that we can cover our entire county,” Green said. “How we dispatch our calls now, it’s based on GPS. The most available unit is going to respond and what our job is each and every day … is to monitor our system … and to move up resources to cover the entire county. So, we believe that that’s what we’re going to be able to do.”

She said each of the affected fire houses will still have some level of staffing; however, in some cases, volunteers will be asked to cover more shifts inside their stations.

“We’re not closing any fire stations,” Green said. “If they’re out on a call, the station will obviously be empty. But our goal again is to ensure that there’s resources in every single fire station.”

In a joint statement, the cities filing suit said that while it values the work of both its career and volunteer firefighters, “reliance on volunteers cannot substitute for the essential presence of career firefighters.”

The 55 personnel who will be moved are going into existing vacancies throughout the county, according to Green.

“The goal, again, to ensure that they’re not called back for mandatory overtime and holdovers. But we are filling the existing vacancies and spreading out our resources throughout the entire county,” Green said.

The move is happening at a time when the county said it is 250 firefighters short of where it wants to be.

The new budget, which goes into effect on Monday, allows the county to hire another 150 firefighters, the most ever. A new firefighter class also entered training earlier this month, and more than 30 new firefighters are set to finish training in the coming weeks.

The city manager in Berwyn Heights declined to comment on the impending move, and calls and emails to leaders in Greenbelt were not returned.

But in their lawsuit, they say the plan to use volunteers to fill in the gaps “is not realistic and will fail.” They also argued that the change “would leave Plaintiffs without adequate fire and emergency services.”

The chief thoroughly denies that, and she also doesn’t think they have legal standing to pursue this matter.

“I think that’s in the purview of the fire chief to make operational decisions, as I make every single day,” Green said.

In their joint statement, the three cities are asking for the formation of a task force to come up with a “sustainable staffing plan,” enhanced support and incentives for volunteer firefighters, and shared data and analysis on the impact of staffing changes.

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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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