Fire Chief Marc S. Bashoor speaks at a press conference to announce arson was the cause of a house fire that injured seven Prince George's County, MD, firefighters on Feb. 24, 2012.
MARC S. BASHOOR rejoined the Prince George’s County, MD, Fire/Emergency Medical Services Department (PGFD) in December 2010, when he was selected by County Executive Rushern Baker as the 11th person to serve as county fire chief. Bashoor had previously served 23 years with the department before retiring and serving six years as the director of Emergency Management and Homeland Security in Mineral County, WV. He is the recipient of many citations and commendations and was awarded the department’s Silver Medal of Valor in 2004. He has been a speaker at fire service conferences and events across the country on topics such as command and control, near-miss incidents and Firestorm 2011. Since taking the helm, Bashoor has worked relentlessly on reunification of the department, developed an apparatus-replacement program and has been successful in hiring recruit firefighters and paramedics. The interview was conducted by Firehouse® Magazine Editor-in-Chief Harvey Eisner.
Firehouse: In the past, due to the fiscal crisis, there were furloughs within the department and no raises for several years. What does the future look like for the department?
Bashoor: We believe the worst of the financial mess is behind us. The PGFD was fortunate in the past year to have been able to fill all existing vacancies and receive a slight overall increase in our budget expenditures. Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker has focused on public safety and education as spending priorities. While all of the staff continue without raises, we have settled contractual negotiations with the International Association of Firefighters and Paramedics – Local 1619, which provides for enhanced staffing and safety among other administrative details. The department recently signed a letter of intent to purchase seven pieces of heavy apparatus, using an existing Council of Governments contract, and establishing an apparatus-replacement rotation. With funding provided by the county, the Fire Commission is in the process of hiring a volunteer recruiter. With the continued public safety focus, the future is bright for continued growth and successful program implementation within the PGFD.
Firehouse: I understand you are going to hire two classes of 30 firefighters this year. Will that continue?
Bashoor: Our recruitment and hiring process is in full gear. We continue to recruit and hire, with 27 recruits who started March 12 and an additional 33 recruits scheduled for hire on May 7. We are in final approvals for the fiscal year 2013 budget, with an additional 50 recruits slated for hire. Utilizing the staffing projections of the Public Safety Master Plan, the PGFD needs to hire 60 to 90 per year to achieve the target of four firefighters/paramedics per 1,000 residents. Our current and projected budgets will make it rough to achieve those numbers; however, that’s the target.
Firehouse: Is the population you protect still growing and is the county expanding into areas that have not been developed?
Bashoor: The county population continues to grow. While certainly slowing, the 2010 census data shows a population of over 850,000 with a growing African American and Hispanic base. The rural tier of the county has remained largely undeveloped – with only sporadic large-lot/large-house residential development. The zoning regulations within the county focus the more dense developments towards the I-95 corridor and METRO (mass transit) locations.
Firehouse: The Prince George’s County Fire/Emergency Medical Services Department is one of the largest combination departments in the nation. How do the members keep up on training?
Bashoor: In addition to our own fire/EMS training academy, we are fortunate to have one of the best university-based emergency service training centers right here, at the University of Maryland, Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (MFRI). Between our academy and MFRI staff and facilities, coupled with the use of our mutual aid academies, the availability of training opportunities is virtually limitless. We are currently beta-testing several in-house and online administrative training programs, which coupled with a new Officer Candidate School, will broaden those opportunities even further. Training is provided in-house and at particular academy locations, seven days a week. Career staff has the opportunity to sign onto a weekly training calendar, allowing one company to go out of service, one day at a time, to participate in particular training opportunities.
Firehouse: The department borders four other counties and the District of Columbia. Is there a lot of mutual aid between departments?
Bashoor: PGFD routinely provides and receives mutual aid through automatic mutual aid agreements with Montgomery, Howard, Anne Arundel and Charles counties, with non-automatic aid provided and received with the District of Columbia, with Calvert County in Maryland and with Fairfax County and Alexandria City in Virginia. Although we do not currently use CAD-to-CAD (computer-aided dispatching) capabilities, we are meeting with several of our partner agencies to determine that feasibility for public safety communications. Since the migration to the 700-Mhz trunked digital radio platform, most of the historic radio communications and safety-related problems have disappeared. There are efforts afoot to attempt standardization of operational policies among the Maryland-area chiefs, although each county currently operates its own policies and procedures. The significant mutual aid response does present some concern with potentially disparate operational policies; however, the radio connectivity has limited that concern.
Firehouse: Being in close proximity to the District of Columbia and housing numerous government buildings, is the department ready to respond and offer assistance to whatever comes your way in the National Capital Region?
Bashoor: PGFD has benefited from the Urban Area Security Initiative grant programs. Enhancements to the Fire/EMS Department Bomb Squad, the addition of regionally based medical ambulance buses and protective gear/equipment enhancements have provided us with the opportunity to be prepared for whatever comes down the road. That said, it is incumbent of all of us in the fire and EMS service to continue training and practical skills development to stay on top of our game. All the gear and equipment in the world won’t mean a hill of beans if we don’t have the right people, with the right training, in the right places, doing the right things.
Firehouse: The county has Interstate 95 running north and south through it. The Capitol Beltway and numerous state highways are also in the county’s response area. With tremendous volumes of traffic, are units busy responding to these numerous highways every day?
Bashoor: The National Capital Region routinely trades the distinction of worst, or almost worst, traffic ratings with several other large cities. Our response patterns allow for bi-directional response, with the occasional quad-direction response for incidents near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. That area, where Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia share response, provides local and express lane corridors on split bridges in both directions over the Potomac River. The latest statistics compiled show that 1.5% of the nation’s gross national product flows up and down I-95 every day. We work closely with the State Highway Administration and State Police to ensure responder safety, while clearing the roadways as quickly as possible. Our folks are very busy covering the I-95 corridor, along with the other major roadways. A recent school bus accident on Route 301 brought the Prince George’s and Anne Arundel County medical ambulance buses to transport 32 students to area hospitals.
Firehouse: How has the new Public Safety Communications Center (PSCC) helped out during incidents, especially those involving multiple agency and department dispatches (including police, fire, EMS and sheriff) within the county?
Bashoor: The new PSCC is phenomenal. The advent of the new 700-Mhz radio platform fills out the system’s network, providing instant interoperability, connectivity or separation as needed. At a recent gasoline tanker rollover on Route 301, responders from Prince George’s, Anne Arundel and Howard counties, along with crash trucks from Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility Washington (formerly Andrews Air Force Base and Naval Air Facility Washington) were joined by police agencies from Prince George’s County, Anne Arundel County, the City of Bowie and the Maryland State Police.
The ability to segregate and multi-cast to the various talk groups was our first opportunity to attempt taxing the system. It was also the first time some of our allied responders had the opportunity to use the radio – however, for the first time, every one of the responders could be instantly “touched” by the incident commander if needed. In the early stages of the ongoing investigation into the 57th Avenue fire, which injured seven of our volunteer firefighters, investigators and radio technicians have been able to map a “radio-path” of use and emergency activation, like no other investigation I’ve seen. While we have what I consider minor bugs to continue working out, so far we are delighted with the system’s capabilities and performance.
Firehouse: Is the call volume growing for the department?
Bashoor: PGFD’s call volume is fairly static, at approximately 130,000 calls for service a year. Over the past year, the percentage of EMS calls decreased slightly; however, EMS still accounts for 78% of our call volume. As our tax base is largely residential, we experience a fairly high volume of the “bread-and-butter” single-family-home fires, with a significantly lower volume of high-rise fires. Garden-style apartments and townhomes balance out the fire volume. PGFD’s EMS volume is driven by multiple factors, with vehicle accidents and general illness topping the charts.
Firehouse: The department used to utilize military ranks. You recently changed to fire service ranks. How did the change come about?
Bashoor: Some years ago, PGFD assumed the use of the military insignia to assimilate with the remainder of the Prince George’s County public safety agencies – all law enforcement agencies. The thought was also relative to the heavy military presence in the county, including Andrews Air Force Base. Upon my appointment in December 2010, one of the realizations made was that we in many cases needed to return to the “basics,” whether that was training, organizational development or yes – apparatus color and rank/insignia. PGFD has returned to the traditional fire/EMS department bugle insignia and designations of chief, deputy chief, assistant chief and so on. While our partners in Virginia and the District of Columbia generally use assistant chief as the second in command, our choice was to take on deputy chief as the second in command, which is consistent with all of our Maryland response partners. Additionally, in the NIMS/ICS (National Incident Management System/Incident Command System) mindset, “deputies” are second in “Command”, further solidifying that decision. We are proud of the fire/EMS service traditions in general – it is good to no longer have to explain the hybrid military insignia we were using.
Years ago, the fire/EMS department also switched apparatus colors to white with a single red stripe. The change to white reflected the county’s historical colonial flag – also white, with a horizontal and vertical crossed stripe. Similar to the traditional switch to bugle insignia and chief titles, the switch to red apparatus draws back to our proud fire/EMS service traditions, while incorporating the latest in DOT (U.S. Department of Transportation) safety striping and lighting. I asked the department personnel to contribute thoughts and ideas for a change in our apparatus color and striping scheme, with a focus on safety and maintenance of our PGFD branding. The results were varied, although the decision to return to red was nearly a universal breath of psychological fresh air. We will not repaint existing apparatus; however, all new apparatus will be red with white cab and dual two-color reflective striping. I want to thank the great combination of career and volunteer members who contributed to the call for ideas to repaint/stripe the new apparatus.
Firehouse: What changes are being planned for the make-up of the Fire Commission and why?
Bashoor: The Fire Commission was developed through the legislative process in the 1970s to ensure the fledgling county fire department and the 37 volunteer corporations being brought under the operational control of the county were able to deliver service and ensure all of the administrative tasks necessary to keep the corporations and members afloat weren’t overlooked or forgotten in the process. The county has grown from a largely rural bedroom community to the county of nearly 1 million people with a diverse economic and business infrastructure, including rail and government facilities. The department has grown from a handful of career staff supplementing the volunteers to a career staff of over 800 with nearly 1,200 active volunteers and call volume of over 130,000.
The Fire Commission’s original mission to ensure the transition occurred has long been achieved, and the now fully combined fire/EMS department should have a commission with a more global presence. The proposals currently being discussed combine what has traditionally been two budgets into one budget with all of the volunteer segments as a separate division with line items exactly as presented as a separate agency in past years. The Fire Commission would be reflective of other county commissions, requiring county residency and confirmation by the county executive and County Council. Additionally, it is appropriately noted that the name has never been “volunteer” fire commission and that the membership of the commission should truly represent both the volunteer and paid segments of the department, as well as the community.
It is my belief that the reconstitution of this commission and the expansion of their outlook to include recommendations on all of the Fire/EMS Department components will be the final component to truly “combine” this combination fire/EMS department into one department.
Firehouse: Are there any plans for new fire stations or to rebuild or move existing fire stations?
Bashoor: We have a ground-breaking ceremony scheduled for the newest station, which will move Brandywine Station 840 approximately 1½ miles to the west on Brandywine Road directly across the street from Gwynn Park High School. This will be the fourth in the series of “Applebee’s” firehouses – “Applebee’s” as termed by one of the architects because we save money by simply retooling the design from the previous project to reflect the next site and apparatus complement. There are two other fire/EMS station projects in the planning phase, with a continued capital improvement project budget projecting additional facilities in years out – including a new apparatus-maintenance facility and training academy. The two other stations currently in planning include Seat Pleasant Station 808 moving approximately 1½ miles to the east on Central Avenue and a new Oxon Hill station in the vicinity of Oxon Hill Road and Indian Head Highway. The Oxon Hill station may include consolidation of existing facilities, although the planning process for that station continues.