Acting Prince George's County fire chief Ben Barksdale said staffing is a major concern facing the county's departments, as fire stations struggle to meet demand for services.
Barksdale and other members of the county fire commission discussed staffing and volunteer recruitment at Tuesday night's College Park City Council meeting.
The county has about 1,500 fit-tested volunteers, who have met the department's physical standards and are deemed able to serve, and about 500 of those volunteers retaining active status, Barksdale said.
Depending on the year, the county's fire commission is "anywhere between the thirteenth and the sixteenth busiest" in the country, he added.
"I can tell you that the departments on either side of that have more people available on a 24-hour basis than we do here in Prince George's County," Barksdale said.
Barksdale was announced as the interim fire chief in January and assumed the position after former chief Marc Bashoor's retirement in March. Barksdale has been part of the county fire commission since 2011, previously served as deputy chief and will officially be sworn in as chief on June 6.
District 1 councilman Fazlul Kabir, who requested the commission's presentation, brought up the decline in volunteer firefighters at the College Park and Branchville departments in the past few years.
The council approved a letter to former Chief Bashoor in October expressing concerns about the volunteer shortage at the Branchville station. The department had 80 workers in 2013, and the station was down to 15 in November.
"What we're hearing is they get calls that they can't respond to because of lack of staffing," said Kabir, before asking how many calls are missed.
It's difficult to track missed calls by department, Barksdale said, but if a fire station is unavailable due to lack of staffing, a 911 call is automatically passed on to the next closest station to the incident. This can delay response times, but Barksdale said the difference is still within five minutes, the acceptable standard for a response time.
Kate Tomanelli, Prince George's County fire commission volunteer recruiter, reaches out to potential firefighters and EMS techs in the community.
"Budget wise, [the county] can only afford so many career staffers," she said, "So we rely on our volunteers. It's not at though we're putting one group over the other."
Tomanelli identified insufficient marketing as the county's biggest recruitment struggle. PGVolunteers.org, a site dedicated to recruiting potential fire and EMS workers, launched at the end of January, but Tomanelli said the county needs more advertising, like on local television or park benches, to increase traffic.
Most individual fire stations use some form of social media, but do not do much other significant outreach, she added.
"If you're not on Facebook or social media, if that's not your thing, you're going to miss the boat," she said.
When asked about potential mergers between fire stations, Tomanelli said it's a common discussion but the county is not considering official action at this time.
"When you have two stations that are near each other and one is struggling … there's always the talk of merging the two," she said. "That's always something that they consider from a staffing standpoint."
"At this point, there's nothing on the table, as far as I know," she said.
A handful of volunteers from the College Park and Branchville fire departments attended the meeting while on-call. At one point, the volunteers heard their services were needed and quickly left, followed shortly by the sound of sirens.