“Hopefully my last incident I ever report a fatality is involved,” Brady wrote.
On Tuesday at 5 p.m., one of the longest-serving public information officers in the area retired, leaving behind a legacy of professionalism, according to members of the news media and public safety colleagues he has worked with over 44 years.
Brady embraced the use of technology and pioneered social media for public agencies. The spokesman became widely known for reliably returning media phone calls and for his straightforward honesty while informing the public of deadly blazes, fatal crashes and other breaking news.
“Always tell the truth and tell our own story,” Brady said.
The College Park native began his career as a volunteer firefighter at the Branchville Volunteer Fire Company in the county in 1975, the same year he graduated from Archbishop Carroll High School. He headed to Prince George’s Community College thinking he would work in law enforcement, he said, but the pull of the fire service was too strong.
“After I joined the fire service, it was in my blood,” Brady, 62, said.
By 1979, he married his high school sweetheart, Teresa, and became a Prince George’s County public safety employee as a switchboard operator before becoming a dispatcher for the fire department.
For 14 years, he worked those phone lines, helping to direct firetrucks and medics around the county.
Then in 1994, Pete Piringer, a family friend and former dispatch co-worker, encouraged Brady to apply to the county public information office. Once hired, Brady embarked on a 26-year career that led him to become the chief communications officer and face of the department, weathering several county executives and 13 chiefs.
Piringer, a former Prince George’s County fire dispatcher and now a spokesman for the Montgomery County Fire Department, said Brady brought layers of experience. His volunteer firefighter service provided the perspective of first responders, and his dispatch work gave him knowledge of county geography.
At the start of their careers, they lacked mobile communication other than one clunky shared cellphone and numeric pagers to return calls. When they left fire grounds, Brady and Piringer had to hustle back to their office, type up a news release and fax them one-by-one to local newsrooms. But as technology evolved, Brady looked to other large agencies such as the Los Angeles Fire Department to spot trends that worked. Locally, other agencies followed how Brady embraced social media to expand his department’s message.
“You try to get the answers and point them in the right direction, and he is a master at that,” Piringer said.
Retired fire chief Marc Bashoor, who has known Brady for 35 years, since their days as dispatchers, said his knowledge and integrity were invaluable for agency leaders.
“The thing Mark always did well was straddle the center of information. It was always factual,” Bashoor said. “He not only understood what the media wanted, but understood what the fire chief needed.”
Brady ensured safety messages often joined any media briefing.
“A PIO can save hundreds, if not thousands, of people with smoke alarms and having a safety plan,” Brady said. “It’s amazing how many people follow us on Twitter, on Facebook.”
Julie Parker said that as a local television reporter, she found Brady eager to help deliver the facts before her deadlines. When she became the head of Prince George’s County police’s media relations division in June 2011, Parker said, she looked to emulate Brady’s ability to help the media understand incidents and create teachable moments for the community.
“Mark was so obviously enthusiastic about the job. It didn’t matter the day or night,” said Parker, now a public relations consultant for law enforcement agencies nationally. “It’s hard for the regular public to know the toll that it takes.”
Brady acknowledged that the “24/7, 365” nature of the job created some missed family birthdays and events and praised the support of his wife and their three children.
Personally, Brady said, he needed to learn to manage the tragic news he delivered, with addressing death and other bad news part of his duties.
“Civilian fatalities are tough, especially children,” Brady said. “You have to be timely. You have to show empathy. It’s so sad. We have to do what we have to do.”
Early in his career, he recalled advice he received from television reporter Jackie Bensen, who noticed he was emotional before speaking to reporters about a child’s death. Bensen, of NBC4, advised Brady to learn to keep some distance.
“I know that he felt for the people who loved that child,” Bensen said. “He is human, too, and he always brought that to his job.”
Brady said he has not been able to shake the memory of what happened to firefighter/medic John E. “Skillet” Ulmschneider on the night of April 15, 2016. Ulmschneider was killed while checking on the welfare of a man in a Temple Hills home. As the brother of the man and firefighters came to his door, the homeowner, coming out of a diabetic episode, believed intruders were breaking in and fired a gun, killing Ulmschneider.
“I knew Skillet,” Brady said. “In my opinion, the department is still struggling from that.”
As Brady leaves the daily grind of an agency with 150,000 calls annually, he will focus on his first grandchild, Mackenzie, but he won’t stop his service. Brady will continue to teach other public information officers nationwide as an instructor for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Emergency Training Center. For the past five years, he and Piringer have crisscrossed the nation, training dozens of spokespeople on their gospel: Get the right information from the right people to the right people immediately.
“Be upfront. Be transparent. Never lie,” Brady said. “Rules to live by as a PIO.”