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Prince George’s County firefighters Matt Fisher, left, and Jacob Smith bring out equipment to extinguish a smoldering piece of wood in the woods in District Heights, Maryland on Nov. 14, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

3.3.24 – The Baltimore Banner

Maryland firefighters are sounding the alarm amid declines in hiring and recruitment

By about 5 p.m., on a fall evening in late November, Lt. Kevin Wittmer and his crew have already responded to 10 emergency calls. A few more will come in before 8 p.m. None of them involve fire.

During the lull in the rush, Wittmer, a professional firefighter and medic at the Prince George’s County District Heights fire station, takes a swig out of a water bottle. He still has a majority of the shift to finish before he can drive home to the Eastern Shore, where he will spend the next three days off the clock. The county’s firefighters typically work about twice a week, 24 hours a shift.

But lately, many have been working longer hours.

The central Maryland fire department, like others around the state, is experiencing unprecedented strain. The force has shrunk to fewer than 1,000 uniformed members spread out across 45 stations, leaving about 80 vacant, budgeted positions left to fill.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, they might have had 3,000 to 5,000 interested applicants fight over those spots. But from May to November, just about 1,400 applied. And of those, only 39 applicants were selected to advance to the fire academy after an intense screening process that involves a background check, a physical and mental exam and written test.

Now the county fire department has about 20 open slots a shift, which must be filled, without exception, every day. That’s an average of 40 people called in daily to work mandatory 12-hour overtime shifts. And that means less time off the clock, less sleep and more county money spent plugging holes.

It’s not just Prince George’s County. Interest in fire service is waning in Maryland as more workers seek higher-paying and less stressful jobs. Though the situation has not yet reached a full crisis pitch, the numbers have caught the attention of Maryland lawmakers, lobbyists and policymakers who are scrambling to stop the bleeding.

Statewide, applications for spots in fire academy programs have dropped considerably over the last four decades, but retirement rates surged since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and recruitment and hiring have yet to catch up, said Dominic Butchko, associate policy director at the Maryland Association of Counties, which lobbies on behalf of the state’s local jurisdictions.

Across the state, emergency response times are “creeping up,” according to MACo.

“Today, we’re fine,” Butchko said. “But in five, 10, 15 years, if recruitments are still not coming in at the level we need, and retirements are continuing at pace, we’ll be in trouble.”

Prince George’s County firefighters Nick Bowen, left, and Jacob Smith, center, watch as Bryce Garipay practices throwing the ladder at an apartment complex in District Heights, Maryland, on Nov. 14, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Counties have already begun offering more and better incentives to retain their existing professional and volunteer crews and fuel interest among new recruits, an expensive balance that is demanding more from municipal budgets. And even with more tools, more outreach and more efforts to recruit diverse applicants than ever before, the gaps persist.

There’s no one reason why fire service has become a harder sell, but a perfect storm of factors has brewed furiously over the last few years, powering something of an emergency among those we depend on to handle them.

In Prince George’s County, job recruiters say the rise of remote work — a benefit never afforded to firefighters — has cut into their labor pool, as have higher-paying private sector jobs that may not require as much physical demand. Many candidates, they said, can’t afford the sacrifices required by fire service.

“We compete with travel jobs, IT, work from home: COVID exposed that, all day,” said Kirk Spencer, a firefighter and medic assigned as the Fire/EMS Department recruiter. “This is: show up, get your hands dirty. It’s cold, it’s hot and hard all the time.”

Firefighters think there’s less interest in service than when they and their predecessors joined the force — and less passion for community and volunteerism in general. And today’s youngest recruits weren’t alive during, or have no memory of, 9/11, a seminal building block in the DNA of firefighters of a certain age.

“It is a different applicant,” said Yolanda Smedley, human resources manager for the fire department. “People aren’t answering the phone. People aren’t coming dressed appropriately for the written test. Basic things.”

One thing’s for sure: The mandatory overtime shifts are causing even more exhaustion, more frustration with the status quo and more pessimism about the state of the force.

“These are very unique stresses. Sleep deprivation has well-known risks. So does elevated cortisol,” Wittmer said, referring to the stress hormone that can increase risk factors for heart disease. “People are at their breaking point.”

Firefighter Nick Bowen drives the engine truck and Lt. Kevin Wittmer sits in the passenger seat as they respond to a nighttime call.
Firefighter Nick Bowen drives to a gas leak call in District Heights, Maryland, on Nov. 30, 2023 while Lt. Kevin Wittmer sits in the passenger seat. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

As recently as 2021, the selection process for jobs in Maryland’s professional firefighting departments — which are concentrated in the state’s most populated counties in the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., metro areas — was cutthroat. Many of the members at the District Heights firehouse had to apply multiple times, all over Maryland, or up and down the East Coast, to land a spot in Prince George’s County.

Of Maryland’s professional fire departments, Prince George’s County, which serves a multicultural estimated population of nearly 950,000 people, is among the busiest in the state. And among the county’s 45 stations, the District Heights firehouse crew prides itself on fielding about 15,000 calls per year.

Countywide, the department reports responding to around 169,000 incidents a year. Of those, as many as 80% trigger an emergency medical services response. That means a fire engine and or ladder truck is accompanied by an ambulance to ensure the calls about chest pains and light-headedness aren’t also linked to natural gas leaks or other environmental dangers. That’s why the roughly 169,000 calls have led to nearly 294,000 total unit responses per year, according to county data.

Calls dropped off in 2020 as more people stayed home and avoided hospitals. But once the uncertainty surrounding the first few months of the pandemic receded, 911 calls jumped back up again, according to the county, and are now exceeding pre-pandemic volumes.

COVID-19 may have exacerbated some of the problems among fire departments, the District Heights fire crew said between calls as they lounged around the station. But some of the concerns have laid dormant for years, just waiting for a spark.

Firefighters Greyson Sheppard, left, and Nick Bowen, right, walk over to speak with a police officer about an abandoned Metro bus. Bowen is rim lit by the lights of the Metro bus.
Prince George’s County firefighters Greyson Sheppard, left, and Nick Bowen walk over to speak with a police officer about an abandoned Metro bus in District Heights, Maryland, on Nov. 30, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

For Nick Bowen, a firefighter and driver engineer, the added pressures at the firehouse has coincided with the birth and rearing of his 3-year-old son.

“There’s no infant care in this country, and it affects our spouses, wives and husbands,” the 10-year veteran firefighter said. “People come to this station to ride the firetruck. It’s tough to be told, after riding it for 24 hours, you have to ride it again.”

A native of Calvert County — where volunteers mostly power the fire service — Bowen, like many of his colleagues, grew up with family members who served. It’s foundational to their identities. And they almost all acknowledge the employee benefits package has helped keep them engaged.

The county offers a minimum starting salary of about $46,000, though many members ultimately earn more with overtime and promotions. After 20 years of service, members can retire with pensions equal to 50% of their highest salary, and will be Social Security eligible at age 65, too. The county pays up to 80% of health care costs both before and after retirement.

Bowen takes comfort in a clause embedded in his contract that would award his wife benefits if he dies in the line of duty — a perk not many other vocations offer, he said. The threat of the job looms large over the crew, especially the risk of cancer from the toxins and “forever” chemicals they’re sometimes exposed to.

“It gets trapped inside your gear, and then even if you take your gear off, it gets in the seat,” said Cody Donaldson, a firefighter on Bowen and Wittmer’s shift.

But the threat of cancer would exist even out of uniform, they note. At least this job guarantees their families will be taken care of if it comes for them.

A board in Prince George’s County Fire Department Station 826 notes each person’s role for the day. Small American flags are propped on each side of the board.
A board in Prince George’s County fire department Station 826 notes each person’s role for the day on Nov. 30, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

The job’s physical pressures and requirements add another layer to the force’s problems with recruitment and retention. And now, more than ever, members say the mental and emotional tolls have bubbled to the surface, too.

To the District Heights crew, firefighter Greyson Sheppard, 28, has been dubbed the station’s tragedy “magnet.” He’s responded to calls involving victims of violence, sexual assault, child abuse — some scenes so gory and raw he can hardly describe them without breaking down.

The job and its stressors weigh heavy on him. “My sleep schedule is whack, and nothing I do fixes it,” he said before dozing off on one of the firehouse couches during a slow hour.

There are fewer fire calls, he added, as building materials become less flammable and sprinkler systems grow in prominence. “That’s good for the community,” he said. “But not good for my experience.”

Matt Fisher, a firefighter and peer counselor, said there’s been a rise in crew members seeking out employee assistance involving everything from marital and relationship stress to personal unease. He sees a link between the mandatory overtime shifts, the increased call volumes and the spike in interest in peer support.

Adding to the pressure, Sheppard said, is the number of people who now rely on fire and EMS for problems that should be addressed in other ways. Bowen, the driver, notes that more people are Googling medical symptoms and consulting internet “experts” to their own detriment. And both members acknowledged the health disparities that exist in the county, with many residents they serve lacking access to primary care, health insurance and full-service groceries stores.

“I’m a very expensive Uber driver,” Sheppard said. “I try to tell people: Follow up with your doctor, take your medicine. And that’s the majority of calls, people not following their health care regimen.”

Over time, as technologies have improved, EMS responders have become better at keeping people alive long enough to get them to the hospital. But that has placed a new set of expectations on firefighters and first responders: to fix everything.

“We run all kinds of calls now — the other day, it was a clogged sink,” said Wittmer, the lieutenant. “Maintenance didn’t come, and it was a Sunday, and someone gave her the idea to call.”

Sheppard said county dispatchers are tasked with making split-second decisions, and none of them want to play down an event that turns out catastrophic or generates the next news cycle.

“The majority of us want to help people,” Bowen said. “And it can feel like people are freaking out over nothing.”

Butchko, the county government lobbyist, said local leaders began flagging the recruitment and retention problems starting in May 2022.

At first, the recruitment declines seemed specific to volunteer crews, Butchko said. But after a few months, it became clear that career recruitment and hiring numbers had also flatlined.

Each jurisdiction’s challenges are different, said Dr. Ted Delbridge, the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services Systems, which oversees the state’s EMS and transport network. But he said labor, recruitment and maintaining adequate staffing levels among emergency medical technicians and paramedics have become prolific problems in the state’s metropolitan areas, as well as among volunteers.

“It’s time to create some creative approaches to attracting people to the workforce and help them stay there once they’re in it,” Delbridge said.

Maryland lawmakers passed a bill during the 2023 legislative session that established a commission to study the problem and make recommendations to the governor and the General Assembly by Dec. 1, 2023.

Based on those findings, Maryland lawmakers are now considering bills this year related to scholarships, higher education grants and loan repayment assistance for firefighters and EMTs. State Sen. Malcolm Augustine, a Prince George’s County Democrat, urged his colleagues at a committee hearing last week to act to quell the “crisis.”

Butchko said he sees an opportunity in the number of people looking for help paying for college and health care costs. But some things — especially the cultural shift away from blue collar jobs — will be harder to resolve, he said.

In Prince George’s County, recruiters Smedley and Spencer said they’re spending more time in the high schools these days, hoping to sell the vision to more diverse candidates, including women and Spanish speakers. Many among the District Heights crew think those efforts would be better spent in the state’s more rural counties, which have fewer professional firefighter job openings and, maybe, more untapped interest in the path.

But ultimately, they just want the help.

As he waits for the next call, Bowen, the driver, sips a can of Liquid Death mountain water and trades Snapchat photos and videos with his colleagues, some of them sitting a few feet away. They poke fun and tease and make each other laugh, sometimes so hard they’re near tears.

Community may be harder to find these days, connections harder to make and sustain. But for Bowen and the rest of the shift, all they have to do is look up.

Between calls, the firefighters of Prince George’s County fire department Station 826 chat while sitting around a table in the bay on Nov. 14, 2023. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Hallie Miller


Hallie Miller

Hallie Miller is a reporter at The Baltimore Banner, where she hopes to dive deep into the city’s communities and highlight solutions. She is passionate about engaging readers and using new tools to tell stories. Hallie spent four years at The Baltimore Sun, where she helped lead the organization’s medical coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.