Paul Wall spends nights searching the skies for smoke and listening to emergency radio dispatches.
Upon hearing an address, the 22-year-old District Heights man leaps from his bed to pursue a fire or accident. But he doesn’t head out on a firetruck — he rides a bicycle.
Wall cycles to fire and accident scenes throughout Prince George’s County to capture the incidents with a digital camera and provide a historical record that some firefighters say they have a hard time capturing while battling flames and aiding victims.
“I just do it every day if I don’t have anything else to do,” said Wall, who is unemployed.
Wall, who suffers epileptic seizures, said he only recently received medical clearance needed to get a driver’s license. Until he passes the driving tests, he said, he enjoys riding his bike.
He has taken more than 10,000 photos and videos since 2009 of fires and accidents he has tracked using his scanner and a scanner app on his cellphone, fire officials said.
Wall’s scanner cannot access the new 700 MHz frequency the county upgraded to in November 2011; it can only pick up a radio channel that provides dispatches with addresses but no description of the incident. Since he’s not an actual fire department employee, the county does not provide him with a scanner; however, if Wall sees firetrucks and ambulances pass by, he said it’s a sign the dispatch address is worth the trip.
“He just goes on everything because he can only hear the initial dispatch,” said Capt. Michael Linynsky, of the Seat Pleasant Volunteer Fire Co. “It’s amazing.”
But photography was not the route to the county’s fire and EMS department Wall originally envisioned. He wanted to be the one to hold the hose, climb the ladder and put out the flames. But he said the seizures he has suffered since age 5 prevented him in 2009 from becoming a volunteer firefighter, so he put a new lens on his dream and found another set of wheels to remain connected.
The pictures have been the result of getting up as early as 4:30 a.m. to bike from his District Heights home to the scene of a fire as far north as College Park, which is 12 miles away, and as far south as Accokeek, 20 miles away.
With a number of county shortcuts under his belt, Wall even beats some firefighters and medics to some nearby scenes and is usually the only one snapping photos, he said.
Mark Brady, a county fire/EMS spokesman, said crews respond to 130,000 calls per year. Wall said he’s never counted the number of emergencies he rides to and, because they vary day by day, he didn’t want to guess, but Linynsky estimated Wall responds to about 700 calls a year and said he sometimes sees him at up to three events in a day.
Linynsky said he remembers an accident in late February at the corner of Martin Luther King Jr. Highway and 69th Place in Seat Pleasant where Wall got there before the department did — biking from District Heights. The accident was about a half-mile from the station, and Wall biked from three miles away.
“He beats us,” Linynsky said, referring to emergencies in close vicinity to Wall’s home.
When Wall rides at night, he puts on four bright lights — two in the front and two in the rear — and checks his rearview mirror. He has yet to fall from his bike or be injured at an accident or fire scene while getting close shots, Wall said. Although his photos are free to use with permission, Wall said he is considering setting up a payment system.
His bikes have taken a beating. Wall said the seat began to bend when it was up too high, and the handle bars cracked over time. After posting on his Facebook wall Feb. 28 that he couldn’t ride his bicycle because of a broken seat and handlebars, technician Corey Wargo of the Seat Pleasant Volunteer Fire Department gave Wall his own mountain bike, which Wargo rarely used, the next day.
Others followed. Since Feb. 28, Frankie Nicholson, a career firefighter at the Chapel Oaks Volunteer Fire Department in Capitol Heights, gave him a used bike. The Rockville Volunteer Fire Department, where he also has expanded into cycling and taking fire photos, also gave him a bike.
Wall said he was happy to receive the bikes and was not expecting the gifts, but was hoping someone would notice the work he has done. Wall said he has gotten his bikes from Walmart for about $129, but to get one from a bike shop might cost $100 to $200 more.
“If they weren’t going to give it to me, I just would’ve gotten another one,” Wall said. “I would’ve gotten it with my money.”
Wall has photos of 50 to 60 pieces of apparatus countywide, with images including many of the firefighters and medics who staff them every day. Local departments rely on his photos for their websites and as visual aids to train new firefighters on what to do in certain scenarios, Wargo said. Photos for specific fires are marked for which station was the first due, or the closest fire department to the incident.
Wargo said he never has seen Wall get in a firefighter or medic’s way.
“If there’s a fire, chances are Paul’s going to be there, whether it’s right behind you or after the cleanup,” Wargo said.