Maryland Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D) and Ben Cardin (D) announced that several counties, including Baltimore County and Prince George’s County, would be awarded more than $3 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The money will be used to hire additional firefighters, improve facilities, and upgrade infrastructure.  

Under the appropriation, the Baltimore County Fire Department would hire an additional 16 firefighters, and the Prince George’s County Fire Department would take on 27 new full-time firefighters – a much needed addition based on testimony from an April 2017 council meeting. The grant, according to Van Hollen, would also allow the counties to purchase and replace outdated self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) equipment and face masks – some believed to be nearly two decades old.  

According to testimony from Prince George’s District One Councilman Fazlul Kabir, despite roughly 1,500 approved volunteers, the county continues to experience a shortage of personnel available to respond to fires. Kabir said there had been a noticeable decline at both the College Park and Branchville departments – with Branchville having as few as 15 in 2016 (down from 80) in 2013.

“What we’re hearing is get calls that they can’t respond to because of lack of staffing,” said Kabir.

The reliance on volunteers initially grew out of a lack of funds to hire career staffers, according to Kate Tomanelli, Prince George’s County fire commission volunteer recruiter, who testified at the same April hearing.

“This grant will ensure that Prince George’s County will have appropriate staffing levels to reach the call for help,” said Van Hollen, “whether it’s an accident on I-495, a house fire in Largo, or a medical emergency like a heart attack.”

The funding, available through FEMA’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response Grant (SAFER) program, is designed to enhance the ability of fire departments around the country to attain and maintain 24-hour staffing by providing grants directly to fire departments.

“Nothing is more important than the safety and security of our communities, and their safety directly depends on ensuring our first responders have the resources they need to safely mitigate emergencies,” Cardin said in a press release. “This grant represents a federal investment in Marylanders’ wellbeing and is exactly the kind of funding I will continue to fight for on behalf of all our first responders.”

Wanda Ellison, a Seat Pleasant resident, told the AFRO that with the uptick in drug-related overdoses, the new fire staff could not come at a better time.

“These firemen are not just fighting fires; they are first responders and sometimes arrive on the scene of a medical situation before an ambulance can,” she said. “Having volunteers has been good, but with more residents needing around the clock help, full-time staff is most needed.”