Top Prince George’s County officials are considering bulletproof vests, survival-skill seminars and protocol changes for answering welfare checks as the county reviews firefighter safety in the wake of its most recent line-of-duty death.
A little more than a month after county firefighter John Ulmschneider was fatally shot while answering a 911 call, Fire Chief Marc S. Bashoor announced some possible changes in a department-wide memo. The memo also included a reminder of the department’s general rules on when firefighters should break into a home if there are no police present.
Bashoor has reiterated several times that the firefighters who responded the evening of April 15, when Ulmschneider died, did “everything right” and that there was no “one thing” that would have prompted him to do anything different.
“There is, however, the opportunity to learn and improve from every event, every tragedy, and every call for assistance,” Bashoor said.
Ulmschneider, 37, and fellow firefighter Kevin Swain, 19, were shot as they tried to enter a home in the Temple Hills-Camp Springs area. A man had called 911 asking for help checking on his diabetic brother, who reportedly could not be reached and had recently experienced a blackout or a seizure, county officials said. After knocking and announcing themselves but getting no response, Ulmschneider, Swain, the man’s brother and others forced their way into the house, worried that there was a medical emergency. The 61-year-old resident shot his brother, Ulmschneider and Swain as they entered the house.
The man, who was not charged, was released, and relatives said he had fired in self-defense. Prosecutors are still investigating the case to determine whether charges are appropriate.
Ulmschneider died. Swain and the man’s brother were wounded.
The department had been considering vests for tactical first responders before Ulmschneider’s death and is in the early stages of reviewing whether they should be issued more widely. Bashoor and other top command staff recently tried on ballistic vests from a vendor who offered to donate some gear to the county in the hopes of securing a larger contract if the department buys more, said Mark Brady, a department spokesman.
Fire officials must consider how the vests affect mobility for firefighters and medics as well as their protective value, Brady said.
“If it makes our members safer and we feel they’re required, it is something we would consider in the future,” Brady said.
In the coming weeks, the department also will offer survival skills and training seminars taught by retired Baltimore County Fire Capt. Dennis Krebs.
Krebs, who worked in Baltimore County for 25 years, offered the Prince George’s Fire Department free training after learning of Ulmschneider’s death. Krebs has been teaching such classes since 1982, after he walked up to a car while working in a medic unit and was almost shot in the face by a drunk businessman who thought he was being robbed.
“We took the information police officers use to keep themselves out of trouble and rearranged it to address firefighters and paramedics,” said Krebs, who wrote “When Violence Erupts: A Survival Guide for Emergency Responders.”
Police officers are often taught where to stand, how to walk up to a house or look for other signs to identify a potentially dangerous situation, but firefighters and paramedics don’t always think that way because they’re so focused on trying to render aid, Krebs said.
Jim Brinkley, director of occupational health and safety with the International Association of Fire Fighters, said that, anecdotally, he has noticed an increase in the number of firefighters being shot or shot at while answering calls but that an explanation for that apparent trend hasn’t emerged.
“Some are domestic-related, or the perpetrator has mental-health issues,” Brinkley said. “Sometimes we’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Although more and more agencies are considering adopting ballistic vests for their first responders, particularly in an age of active-shooter incidents, it is still “very rare and very new,” Brinkley said.
Andrew K. Pantelis, president of the local firefighters union, said the department is still grieving and trying to “find its way to a new normal,” but he added that he doesn’t want the county to make decisions out of “knee-jerk reactions.”
Pantelis said the pressing safety concern among union members deals with the information firefighters receive when asked to check on someone’s welfare. Those calls, according to officials, often have limited information that can be vague, depending on the details a 911 caller provides.
The union has no indication that those issues arose in the shooting incident that claimed Ulmschneider’s life, “but it really sparked discussion and evaluation about the needs of the fire department to respond to check-on-the-welfare calls when police are not responding or have it low on their list,” Pantelis said.
Charles Walker, president of the 1,500-member Prince George’s County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association, said that the fatal shooting of Ulmschneider has been unsettling but that firefighters have continued to do the work.
“Unfortunately, it is one of those things you always know can happen, but it had never happened to us,” Walker said. “But it happened, and we definitely need to learn from it.”