Having served nearly 40 years as the face of public safety in and around the nation’s capital, Pete Piringer has returned to Montgomery County with a flurry of tweets and a mission to engage the community — be they online or in neighborhoods.
“They call me Tweety Peety,” Piringer joked.
Piringer began his duties as Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service’s official spokesman on March 24. He has tweeted more than 400 times in less than a month on the job, averaging 20 tweets a day from his @mcfrsPIO account.
“For us to be successful in keeping our community well and safe, we have to be engaged,” said Piringer.
Piringer tweets everything from photos of fire scenes in progress, snapshots of day-to-day life at local fire stations to reminders about checking smoke detectors. At the start of his meeting with The Gazette, Piringer thumbed through a handheld tablet. His phone was on the table, well within arm’s length.
“Just checking email,” he said.
Four tweets were published to his account over the course of his interview with the newspaper.
“This is a 24-7 kind of guy,” MCFRS Chief Steve Lohr said. “He just knows our business very, very well. He just gets it. It’s hard to find someone like that.”
Lohr was the one who asked Piringer to come back to his post as public information officer, a perch he left in 2009. Lohr said Piringer is well connected nationally and locally. He is being paid $118,000.
“The media loves him,” Lohr said.
Piringer, 60, of North Bethesda, has a long history working in public safety.
He’s been involved with College Park Volunteer Fire Department since 1969 and is currently president of the organization.
In 1986 he was the recipient of the Prince George’s County “Gold Medal of Valor” for pulling a man out of burning car after a crash on the Capital Beltway, before emergency responders arrived.
He has also been named firefighter of the year and City of College Park “Volunteer Firefighter of the Year,” among other honors.
Piringer said his social media habits could be traced to a “pro media” mindset he adopted from Prince George’s County Fire Department, where worked from 1975 to 1998. He began as a dispatcher and then was promoted to public information officer, which means he was to handle interviews with reporters and, at times, act as an official spokesman for the fire department.
But being “pro media” at that time meant doing things the old-fashioned way, looking for opportunities to be on television or on the radio and routinely pitching stories to newspaper reporters.
“If you were on Channel 4, all the PIOs [public information officers] in the region would say, ‘I don’t necessarily care if Fairfax is talking about smoke alarms because they’re talking about smoke alarms.’ Montgomery County residents are going to benefit from that knowledge,” Piringer said. “Social media kind of changes that a little bit. Twitter — people who follow you, want to follow you. They take action to follow you to get their information.”
Piringer left Prince George’s county to spend a few years as a public information officer for Maryland State Police. He then went on to become Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service’s spokesman in 2001. Piringer left Montgomery County in 2009 for an opportunity with the D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department, where he said his hard-core tweeting began.
“D.C. is different from any other community, as far as media relations and activity and all of that,” Piringer said. “You can have a Dumpster fire at the Capitol and it’s interesting.”
At first, he said, his motivations for using social media — specifically Twitter — were selfish, intended to pre-empt multiple phone calls from reporters. But over time, D.C. government agencies’ use of social media grew more sophisticated. He said department heads got training from experts in journalism and media on how to get the most out of the medium, how to build an audience and make sure your message is getting heard.
Piringer took credit for pushing the D.C. fire department’s Twitter feed past the 10,000 follower mark in 2010.
“Everybody gets their news on Twitter,” Piringer said. “I wake up every morning and [say] what did I miss overnight?”
Piringer left D.C. in 2012 to take a job as the head of the City of Laurel’s office of communications, where he worked for two years.
Meanwhile in Montgomery County, funding for Piringer’s position lapsed, according to Lohr. Others — Assistant Chief Scott Graham, Capt. Oscar Garcia and Beth Anne Nesselt — were asked to fill in, taking the role of public information officers in addition to their primary duties within MCFRS.
“It’s not the same has having a full-time person,” Lohr said.
Piringer said that although some things have changed since he’s come back to Montgomery County, he said it’s a lot like picking up where he left off.
“I’ve jumped right into it,” Piringer said.