Still Helping Long After the Fire Is Out

There is never a "good time" for a fire to occur, and often it is the timing of when a fire occurs that compounds the tragedy and sense of loss; for example, the December holiday season. With the absence of fatal or serious injuries, the tragedy of the loss of a home, a lifetime of personal items, documents, and basic necessities of food, clothing and shelter add to the grief of this extremely personal misfortune. Most fire departments assist displaced residents to ensure that their basic needs are met, albeit for a short time, with the assistance of partner groups such as the American Red Cross.

It is the job of firefighters to respond to an incident, mitigate the emergency and salvage whatever they can, knowing that residents will be assisted through an established relief process. There are times, however, when firefighters are compelled to do more. In mid-December 2007, Prince George's County, MD, firefighters responded to two multi-alarm fires resulting in 50 housing units being uninhabitable and nearly 130 residents without a place to call home. The thought of people being without a place to live, food to eat and clothes to wear during the holiday season led station-level firefighters to do more than what is normally expected of them. The "community" in them came out in a big way.

The first incident occurred on a sunshine-filled, windy Monday morning, Dec. 17. The night before, wind gusts were clocked up to 50 mph in the area. Outages occurred throughout the county from downed power lines. The senior command staff had gathered at Bunker Hill Community Fire/EMS Station 55 for a public relations event involving the assembly of food baskets to be distributed to needy residents. The media event was to have started at 9 A.M., but at 8:45, units from the Beltsville area and surrounding communities, including Montgomery County, were dispatched to a reported fire in a building. Crews arrived quickly at a three-story-in-front/four-story-in-rear garden-style condominium with heavy smoke coming from the building. Firefighters initiated an aggressive interior attack on the fire, which appeared to have started in a unit on the second floor. Northwesterly winds gusting up to 20 mph assisted in the rapid extension of the fire and it quickly became obvious that additional resources would be needed.

The fire moved quickly from the second floor through the upper floors and eventually burned through the roof and started to extend toward an attached building. Fortunately, quick work by firefighters limited extension. Second and third alarms were sounded, dispatching nearly 80 firefighters to the scene. Two firefighters sustained injuries when their facepieces and helmets were knocked off when a ceiling collapsed on them. Both firefighters escaped and were transported to the Burn Unit at the Washington Hospital Center with burns to their upper bodies and smoke inhalation. Two other firefighters sustained minor injuries.

The fire caused $1.5 million in damage and was attributed to an unattended candle left burning in a second-floor unit that ignited nearby combustibles. The candle was being used for illumination during the power outage. Thirty units in two buildings were uninhabitable and 75 residents were displaced. Many residents made their own arrangements with family and friends, but others had no choice but to accept temporary assistance from the fire department and the Red Cross.

Just four days later, another fire occurred that nearly doubling the number of displaced county residents. At 2 P.M. on Friday, Dec. 21, firefighters and paramedics from Berwyn Heights/Greenbelt and surrounding communities were alerted for an apartment building fire. Fire/EMS units arrived quickly and encountered a three-story, garden-style apartment building with heavy smoke and fire showing from the rear. Firefighters again initiated an aggressive interior attack on the fire and a simultaneous search and rescue for possible trapped occupants. The fire appeared to have started in a ground-floor unit and extended rapidly through the upper floors and eventually through the roof. Again, second and third alarms were sounded, dispatching 75 firefighters and paramedics to the scene. No injuries to civilians or firefighters occurred. The fire loss was estimated at $1 million. An attached building sustained significant damage as well. Displacement of 21 apartments occupied by 60 residents was necessary. The fire/EMS department's Citizens Services Unit, the Red Cross and apartment complex management assisted displaced residents to ensure temporary shelter and relief.

In both incidents, relief efforts provided hotel rooms and vouchers for food and clothing, but the volunteer firefighters from the Beltsville and Berwyn Heights fire/EMS departments knew that they had to do more. The day after the fire, Beltsville Fire Chief Al Schwartz directed his members to initiate a fund drive to assist the displaced residents from the Cherry Hill Road fire. To facilitate a quick turnaround of donated items to the displaced residents, firefighters asked civilians to donate gift cards from local stores. The response was overwhelming. Local businesses and community members answered the call for help and generously donated several thousands of dollars. On Dec. 23, the Beltsville Community Fire/EMS Department invited the displaced residents to the fire station, where they were met with tables of new toys, personal items, clothing, food and evenly divided gift cards. Residents were invited to shop through the items and take what they needed. They were overcome with gratitude and thanked the Beltsville volunteer firefighters for their efforts in extinguishing the fire and the follow-up effort.

In Berwyn Heights, even before the fire was completely out, Fire Chief Chuck Fusco declared that his station would conduct a similar fund-raising effort. Challenged with a shorter time to solicit donations, the firefighters went to work. Again, business, civic leaders and residents stepped up and generously donated gift cards and money. On Christmas Eve, the displaced residents were invited to a luncheon hosted by the Hotel Clarion in College Park and firefighters filled the atrium with new toys, personal items, food, clothing and evenly divided gift cards. In total, the two departments generated nearly $15,000 in donations that were distributed. Remaining items from the two relief efforts such as clothes, toys and food items were donated to a nearby shelter.

As stated previously, a firefighter's job includes salvage work, but there is no doubt that long after these two fires were extinguished, these firefighters salvaged a somewhat joyous holiday season for those in need.

MARK E. BRADY is chief spokesperson/public information officer for the Prince George's County, MD, Fire/EMS Department.