Growing up in rural West Virginia, Benjamin M. Barksdale remembers hearing the siren blow from the neighboring fire station and asking his mother about the commotion.
Barksdale’s mother explained to him, then a boy of about 6, that the siren signaled volunteer firefighters would soon launch out of the station to help people in the community.
“I would like to do that,” Barksdale remembered thinking before eventually signing up to join the same fire department as a volunteer at 16.
After more than 35 years in the fire service, Barksdale’s career took a new turn Tuesday as he became the fire chief in Prince George’s County. Barksdale, 52, has been serving as acting chief of the nation’s largest combination career and volunteer fire and EMS department since March, when chief Marc S. Bashoor retired. The Prince George’s County Council unanimously confirmed Barksdale as the department’s 12th fire chief.
“It’s a childhood dream what I’m doing,” Barksdale said.
Barksdale takes the helm of the 16th busiest department in the nation, with a staff of 900 career firefighters and 1,400 volunteers.
Barksdale came to Prince George’s in 2011 as a deputy chief after retiring from the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia. He worked in Arlington County for 24 years, rising through the ranks to the second top leadership position in the fire department.
In Arlington he revamped fire codes to help first responders get easier access into buildings as chief fire marshal. And he served as a battalion chief during the 9-11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Pentagon, overseeing various fire operations after a plane crashed into the building.
“It was like someone had knocked the wind out of me,” Barksdale said of learning of the attacks before quickly scrambling to the scene with fellow officers who were off duty at a conference three miles away.
Bashoor had recruited Barksdale to Prince George’s, but Barksdale turned down the first offer since he was a year or so shy of retirement in Virginia. Prince George’s continued to pursue Barksdale in the two or three months after the initial offer and he was going to turn it down again until he realized he had more than a year’s worth of sick leave that he could cash in to retire earlier than he planned without penalty.
“The only time I took sick was when my daughter was born,” Barksdale said. Barksdale, who has lived in Prince George’s County with his wife (an Arlington police officer) and daughter (a college student) for more than 20 years, said he gets his work ethic from his father.
Barksdale has a master’s in management and has traveled to Kenya twice to train firefighters. He keeps a red, green and white bracelet around his wrist, a gift from the firefighters he worked with during his first trip in Nairobi.
In his nearly six years with Prince George’s County as the fire department’s second-highest ranking official, Barksdale has touched nearly every aspect of the department including human resources, training, budget management and emergency services operations. Barksdale also oversaw the recent purchase of $11.5 million in new breathing equipment and engine upgrades.
Barksdale said he looks forward to taking on many goals as fire chief in Prince George’s, including improving diversity within the ranks and working on turning the department into a fully accredited agency.
He wants to expand the department’s mobile integrated health program, which currently has two firefighters working with nurses on preventive medical house calls aimed at curbing 911 activity.
Barksdale said he also aims to boost recruitment of career and volunteer firefighters so that every engine and ambulance will be staffed with at least three people 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. It would match Prince George’s to the standards of neighboring jurisdictions and improve response times, Barksdale said.
“This is about career and volunteer staffing and having enough people to respond and get the apparatus out of the station 24-7. “I would like to be the first chief to begin the staffing of apparatus.”