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

Mark E. Brady reports on a multiple-alarm fire that grew into the biggest fire in Prince George’s County history.


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. PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY FIRE/EMS DEPARTMENT Chief...


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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.

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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.

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