On The Job – Maryland: $8 Million Fire Hits Historic Courthouse in Upper Marlboro

Photo by Mark E. Brady
In certain areas of the building, there were three separate ceilings located 15 feet above floor level. Several renovations and additions had been made since the original building was constructed.


Chief: Lawrence H Sedgwick, Jr.
PersonneL: 1,900 career and volunteer firefighters
Apparatus: 43 engines, 25 aerials, one quint, one water-supply unit, two breathing-air units, two emergency command units, 10 heavy rescues, two foam units, five hazmat units, 14 ALS units, 40 BLS units (reserve fleet includes eight engines, two ladder trucks, one heavy rescue, 10 ambulances)
Population: 833,000
Area: 500 square miles

Upper Marlboro Fire/EMS Company 20, just one block east of the courthouse on Main Street, arrived within two minutes of the initial 911 call. The first-arriving units from Upper Marlboro, Engine 20 and Truck 45, followed by Battalion Chief Thomas Hayden, were confronted with heavy smoke issuing from the roof area of the “old” section of the courthouse. Engine 20’s personnel quickly advanced a large-diameter hoseline to the top floor, then determined that the fire had made significant headway in the roof. Stiff northerly winds, approximately 30 mph, were aiding rapid advancement of the fire.

In an effort to protect the newer portions of the courthouse complex, the company officer withdrew to a defensive position. The command post was established in a large parking lot on the Delta side of the building, proving to be an excellent location as command and control functions expanded.

History & Background

A courthouse has been on the site since the early 1700s. However, the existing courthouse became a large, sprawling facility, with the oldest section dating back to 1881. Over the years, several renovations and additions were made to the original structure, creating a campus in excess of 360,000 square feet of courthouse space. With the newest addition in 1992, the original 151,000 square feet of the county’s Criminal Court Campus became known as the Duvall Wing. A $25 million renovation project was nearing completion and the area was mostly vacant, except for contractors working in the building. The building’s fire alarms, sprinklers and standpipe systems were not yet operable.

Photo by Mark E. Brady
Upper Marlboro, where the courthouse is located, is largely rural. Some first-alarm companies responded from 10 miles away.

Continuing Operations

As the fire continued to be fanned by strong winds and Engine 20’s personnel took a defensive position, Hayden quickly ordered the dispatch of a second-alarm assignment. As the alarm was dispatched, Lieutenant Colonel Marc Bashoor, emergency operations commander, arrived on the scene and assumed “Courthouse Command.” With the focus on “protecting the new building,” Hayden was reassigned to the interior division.

Upper Marlboro, the seat of Prince George’s County government, is largely rural and has other first-alarm companies responding from up to 10 miles away. Command assigned incoming engines and ladders to take protective positions between the old and new sections, and directed others to ensure that the newer portions of the courthouse complex were completely evacuated. The County Sheriff’s Office, which has primary responsibility for law enforcement in the courthouse complex, confirmed that all prisoners were accounted for and secured. That agency set up a temporary courthouse continuity command post at Engine 20.

As other command officers arrived, command assigned a major (assistant chief) and a battalion chief to work together in the most vulnerable areas – Divisions 2 and 3. Additional majors, battalion chiefs and volunteer chiefs were assigned to Divisions 1 and 4 and Bravo, with the Alpha side identified as the “Main Street Division.” Subsequent arriving chief officers were assigned the operations, logistics and finance sections, along with water supply, rehab and public information. Units were assigned to rapid intervention posts on all sides of the building, with multiple safety officers working the scene.

Photo by Mark E. Brady
Winds clocked at 30 mph aided the rapid advancement of the fire.

With all dispatched units working and the fire continuing to advance, command ordered a third-alarm assignment. Third-alarm units were staged at the nearby Equestrian Center and sent in when necessary. Division 2 placed companies at three main east-west points, where parallel courtrooms ran from the front to the rear of the building. These positions became the primary line of defense, with large-diameter hoselines placed over to the windows by ground and aerial ladders, stairwells and rope.

Significant volumes of fire advanced toward personnel positioned in Division 2, while personnel in Division 3 took positions at the windows adjacent to the involved roof area. Although not impinging through the windows, the fire was extending over these windows to the Division 4 windows and over the roofline. Units were assigned to a Division 4 tower to watch the roof area of the four-story building. Windows on Division 3 were taken out, with hoselines employed to slow the upward advance of the fire.

Fire companies were strategically placed at three points, with Division 2 units attempting an advance to the heart of the fire area. As crews advanced, the oldest section of the courthouse and the 500-pound-bell tower collapsed, resulting in ceiling and wall damage in areas of the more recent additions. After observing the conditions and quickly reviewing the pre-plans and construction blueprints, Division 2 companies retreated to their original position. They held the fire in check, while master streams opened up in a concerted effort from the Bravo and Delta sides. A portable deluge gun was erected in the center hall to further protect crews and, if necessary, provide for an unstaffed master stream.

Photo by Mark E. Brady
Master streams held the fire in check as portions of the old courthouse tower collapsed, as did the bell tower.

Bashoor declared the fire under control at 11:02 A.M. Units remained on the scene all day and throughout the night, continuing to mop up hot spots. The rotation of crews continued, with outgoing crews sent to a mandatory rehab area. The rehab areas were staffed by paramedics and fire officers and supplied with food and drinks through the efforts of the Prince George’s County government, Red Cross, Prince George’s County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association Ladies Auxiliary and several local businesses.

Fire and EMS companies from Baltimore-Washington International Airport and Anne Arundel, Calvert, Charles, Queen Anne and St. Mary’s counties provided response and station fill-ins during the fire. All of the Prince George’s County public safety and affiliated agencies provided liaison and support for the command post operations. The Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) worked with Prince George’s County Public Works and Transportation (DPW&T) to provide variable message signage on local highways, as traffic was routed around Pennsylvania Avenue and Crain Highway. The SHA and DPW&T also provided light towers for the fire scene and placed police at traffic posts, as necessary.

Prince George’s County Fire Prevention and Investigation officers interviewed over 60 workers and witnesses during the initial 24-hour phase of the operation. Early speculation by bystanders placed the cause on construction workers. Fire investigators, however, determined that a temporary light fixture malfunctioned, causing the fire to envelope an old wooden area of the ceiling. Local fire companies assisted fire investigators for several days after the fire, while a thorough investigation was conducted. The federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) assisted Fire Investigations throughout the incident.

Photo by Mark E. Brady
Incoming units were positioned between the new and old sections of the courthouse.
Critique & Follow-Up

Initial-arriving crews conducted a quick and accurate, yet difficult size-up of the situation. The immediate actions of this crew and those of command and control, including thorough implementation of the incident management system, were critical to the successful outcome. There were two minor injuries to firefighters, neither requiring admission to a medical facility.

On the day of the fire, Prince George’s County Executive Jack Johnson commended firefighters from across the region for their efforts in joining with firefighters from Prince George’s County to extinguish the fire.

“This is a major loss for the residents of Prince George’s County,” Johnson said. “I am grateful to the men and women of all the fire departments, who worked tirelessly to extinguish the blaze and kept it from spreading to the new courthouse.”

“This is the essence of what Prince George’s County is all about, pulling together to help one another in times of need,” said Dr. Jacqueline F. Brown, chief administrative officer for Prince George’s County.

Vernon Herron, deputy chief administrative officer for public safety/director of homeland security, said, “The fire department commanders had to very quickly strategize and choose the tactics necessary to extinguish the fire and prevent it from spreading to the adjoining structure, they are to be commended for their quick thinking and aggressive actions.”

Johnson, calling it the biggest fire in Prince George’s County history, said, “The old portion of the court complex pretty much burned down. We lost our most historic building in Prince George’s County.” He vowed to begin rebuilding as soon as possible.

The Rescue After the Fire

An early-morning fire in the District Heights section of Prince George’s County, MD, destroyed most of a home’s contents and displaced a family of five. Firefighters from the Prince George’s County Fire/Emergency Medical Services Department extinguished the fire and ensured that everyone was safe and had a place to stay for a few nights.

Firefighters from the Third Battalion, however, weren’t satisfied with just putting out the fire. They felt compelled to do more.

Photo by Mark E. Brady
Natasha Burroughs, her son Joseph and Third Battalion members after the family moved into their new apartment. “I didn’t know that firefighters did this type of thing,” she said.

Shortly after midnight on July 20, 2004, units from the Third Battalion were dispatched to Burroughs’ home for a reported fire. Upon arrival, units encountered a 1½-story single-family dwelling with fire showing from the kitchen windows. The fire, caused by food left cooking on a stove, caused $40,000 in damage. The family had escaped from the burning house prior to the arrival of firefighters.

Although the fire was extinguished within 10 minutes, the damage was done. The fire destroyed most of the family’s belongings, and what was left was damaged by water and smoke. Firefighters moved the family’s remaining possessions to Morningside Fire/EMS Station 27. They cleaned and repaired the furniture as best they could and laundered the clothing. Donations were sought and the community responded by bringing clothing to District Heights Fire/EMS Station 26.

Firefighters went to apartment managers and interceded for the Burroughs family in the hopes of helping obtain housing for the family, who were staying with friends. On Sept. 4, Burroughs and her children moved into a three-bedroom apartment in Suitland. Firefighters from the Morningside and District Heights stations loaded pickup trucks with the donated clothing and the rest of the Burroughs family’s possessions. Natasha and her son Joseph greeted them at the door of their new home.

“I am really appreciative of everything they have done,” Burroughs said. “I didn’t know that firefighters did this type of thing. They certainly have gone above and beyond what I expected.”

Captain Stephen Gallagher, 16-year veteran, and Technician Mark Thorn, a 12-year veteran, assigned to the Morningside station, spearheaded this effort. “I grew up in a family with a single mom,” Thorn said. “I wish someone would have done this for me. The morning of the fire, it was an internal feeling, we all felt the need to do something.”

Third Battalion firefighters were on a mission, motivated by compassion, to help the young family. They “passed the hat” among themselves and collected over $300 for the family, and accepted donations from other sources. Thorn’s church also donated $375.

Acting Fire Chief Lawrence H. Sedgwick stated, “This sort of compassion or devotion to duty is typical among the fine men and women of the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department. It is truly an honor to serve another human being and be able to have a positive impact upon a family in a time of need.”
—Mark Brady

Mark E. Brady is press information officer/chief spokesperson for the Prince George’s County. MD, Fire/EMS Department. He has served with the department for 27 years. Brady also is a 30-year life-member of the Branchville Volunteer Fire Company in Prince George’s County.