County firefighters put officials through paces
Fire Ops 101 organizers hope to steer public safety funding
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Prince George's County and state officials spent the afternoon crawling in burning buildings, navigating through dark mazes, and extinguishing blazing fires but they didn't trade their current public service career for another.
They were invited to a day of live demonstrations Friday during the first Fire Ops 101 event at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute.
The event, held by the local firefighters union and county fire/EMS department, was designed to help policymakers and civic leaders understand what firefighters go through in a day's work as part of their future funding decisions, said Andrew Pantelis, president of the Prince George's County Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics Association Local 1619.
Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D), County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D), and several county council members were among the roughly 30 "students" whom fire instructors educated throughout the day.
"I certainly have a much greater appreciation today for what our men and women do in the fire and rescue service. They're real guardians of the community," Brown said in full firefighter gear after exiting a smoke-filled building.
There were hands-on exercises at various training stations during the event. One included a live-burn building that participants entered to feel the heat and experience the breathing conditions in a fire. Another was set up outdoors where participants used a fire hose to put out a large flammable-liquid fire. A third included a pitch-black maze that officials had to guide themselves through.
Pantelis stressed the department's need for more staffing, which he has pushed for since assuming his role in November 2009.
"We're a severely understaffed fire department; we've had years and years and years of not hiring enough adequate staff numbers to meet our service demand, to meet the needs of the citizens in the county," he said.
The Prince George's County Fire/EMS Department currently has 765 sworn employees, and Pantelis said 1,200 career firefighters are needed to safely provide service to Prince George's County.
The proposed fiscal 2012 budget includes $535 million in funding for public safety including $115 million for the fire/EMS department and 60 new recruits a 1.5 percent funding increase from fiscal 2011. The proposed budget also would increase fire/EMS staffing to 778, as well as pay for 22 new pieces of equipment and ambulances, said Baker spokesman Scott L. Peterson.
Acting Fire Chief Marc Bashoor said the proposed budget is "absolutely a step in the right direction. But frankly it is baby steps. For many years, we have hired a little here and a little there just to keep our head above water."
Prince George's County firefighter Capt. Stephen Gallagher, who works at the Tuxedo-Cheverly Station 822, also said Fire Ops 101 has the potential to increase funding to the department.
"The idea is that when something comes across their desk, they'll kind of go, You know what, I've done that, I know what they're talking about,'" he said.
Baker said that actually experiencing what the fire department does with a hands-on approach could affect the decisions that are made in his office.
"As we are deciding what the fire department's budget looks like and when the fire department comes in and the chief comes in and asks for equipment, it's different when you just see and they come in and it's on paper, than to actually go out here and to put the uniform on and to simulate what they're going through," Baker said.
After officials had completed most of the day's activities, Pantelis said the firefighters' union plans to host the event either annually or every two years.