By Past Chief John C. Wells
Edits and additions as submitted by: Bill Maier and Randy Kuenzli
1922 to 1997 – Yes seventy-five years ago on August 2, 1922, our department was organized by 35 Charter Members who elected George G. Wiseman as their first Chief. As we look at the sophisticated equipment and the apparatus that protect the citizens of our area today, it is hard to imagine that the first fire protection equipment was 500 feet of 21/2″ hose and a nozzle. A hand-drawn reel was borrowed from the Cottage City Fire Department that was pulled to fires by our members until June 1923.
The first motorized equipment was a used Simplex 500 GPM Pumper purchased in 1923 from the Norristown, Pennsylvania Fire Department. This was housed in an unheated garage and after experiencing difficulty starting the pumper during cold weather, it was determined that a proper Fire House should be built.
A carnival was held to raise money and a lot in the present 4800 block of Annapolis Road was purchased. The members constructed a cement block building on the lot. The building was completed in the Spring of 1926. The members then built an addition on the rear which contained a social hall on the first floor and a maintenance shop in the basement. This building still stands and is now occupied by the Bladensburg Barber School and other businesses.
In the fall of 1927, a Brockway Chassis was purchased. The body and pump from the Simplex were transferred to the new chassis. This pumper was unique in the fact that it was the first to be equipped with a glass windshield and the booster tank piped directly to the main pump.
In December of 1927, the Prince George’s County Rescue Squad was organized by Mr. H. L. Leonard. The first unit was placed in service at Bladensburg. American Red Cross records indicate that this was the first county-wide Volunteer Rescue squad in the world. Our ambulances still proudly bears the emblem of Prince George’s County Rescue Squad No. 1.
In 1932 a Ford Chassis was purchased and the members constructed another pumper. This one with a 300 GPM pump and especially equipped for forest fire fighting.
In 1934 an International Ambulance was purchased. This was the first factory-fabricated piece of equipment purchased. In 1937 a Packard Ambulance and a new Buffalo Pumper were placed in service. This pumper is still operable and is the property of our Ladies Auxiliary.
Due to the size of the modern ambulances and pumpers and the increase in the number of pieces of apparatus, a drive-through bay was constructed by the members of the rescue squad in 1939.
Also in 1939, a new Buick Ambulance was purchased to replace the International. Again in 1940, another Buick Ambulance was purchased bringing to three the number in service. With only nine ambulances in the County, it was not uncommon that all three of ours would be out on calls at the same time. Hanging on the rack, on the east side of the engine bay were one size fits all white coveralls with Bladensburg Rescue Squad embroidered on the back. These were worn when answering ambulance calls. The firemen wore firemen’s coats and metal helmets for fire calls. There were no pants or boots in these days but were finally provided around mid-1941.
Rescue Squads 1 and 2 were manned by firemen who had successfully passed the Red Cross Advanced First Aid Course. This requirement was later supplemented by the Maryland State First Aid Council, Inc. instructions. During these times the action of the squads was to primarily treat any arterial bleeding, bandage wounds, splint broken bones and transport. The emergency cases went to Sibley Hospital as there were no ER facilities in Prince George’s County. Some area doctors would take non-emergency cases, such as cuts, dislocations, etc. One doctor in Hyattsville, Martin Keane, who had an X-ray machine in his office would examine patients with suspected fractures.
The Sibley Hospital ER room wasn’t a specially equipped area in 1940, rather was a room where patients were given primary exams, and treatment if required, before being admitted to the hospital. They were not staffed by full-time trauma doctors (and rarely were nurses present) but hospital staff doctors, who often requested our help with prep work before treating those emergency patients, sometimes even having us help with suturing and doing the final dressing of wounds. Doctors were notoriously incapable of applying a decent bandage and often shunted that phase of treatment to us. The Rescue Squad normally responded to calls as far north as Laurel and almost anywhere east to Marlboro.
With the threat of war hanging over us, the members decided to order another pumper. This was done in November of 1940 and not until March of 1942 was the pumper delivered. This also was a Buffalo.
The war years were extremely difficult for the department. The majority of our young active members were called to arms and the responsibility of operating the Department rested on a few left behind. Through their planning, auxiliary departments were started in Edmonston, Roger Heights, Landover Hills, and West Lanham Hills, also a Junior Department was then organized. The Fire House was designated the headquarters of Civil Defense for Prince George’s County and an O.C.D. Control Center. As such, it was equipped with a switchboard that was manned around the clock by the volunteer neighborhood ladies. Air Raid drills would be held throughout the year, summer or winter and required all fire department vehicles to be dispersed to pre-assigned locations where they had to wait until the “all clear” siren sounded. All apparatus headlights were blacked out with exception of a small slit that allowed about as much light to escape as would be furnished by a flashlight. Driving at night wasn’t much fun. In addition, Bladensburg was required to send one fire truck to a designated DC fire station in case all that station’s apparatus was out in service. Protecting Washington D. C. was of top priority. After the war, the Civil Defense turned the switchboard over to the fire departments and they became the first county fire department communication network.
The Packard Ambulance was retired for the lack of repair parts and the 1939 Buick was lost in a tragic accident at New York Avenue and Bladensburg Road in which our member, Robert Lohman and the patient were killed. Mr. Lohman and Clarence Johnston who was killed responding to the Fire House and Henry Dailey killed by a hit and run driver while leaving the Fire House on Annapolis Road are the only “In Line of Duty Deaths” of the department.
During the war, the manpower situation was so acute that the County Police sometimes would park their only car covering the northern section of the County to take ambulance calls. To help facilitate ambulance service a two-way radio on the Police Frequency was installed in our last remaining ambulance. This was the first two-way radio-equipped vehicle in the Prince George’s County Fire Service.
With the end of the war and the return of the members, progress again was the theme. The Fire Department and Rescue Squad merged to the form the now existing Corporation. A committee was formed to search for suitable ground for a new firehouse. The old Packard Ambulance was sold to the Woodland Beach Fire Department and two Cadillac Ambulances were ordered. New ambulances were delivered in 1947 and 1948 and for a while, we again operated three ambulances. The 1940 Buick was eventually sold to the Oxen Hill Fire Department.
In 1949 the Department started regular weekly bingo games. These have continued to date. Prior to the bingo games, our only income was donations, a yearly carnival, which featured of all things, boxing matches between the local Gentry and door to door canvassing, soliciting funds to support the Rescue Squad. Our members would start in Largo and work back to the District Line. At one time, we sponsored a “Man Buried Alive” theme at the Peace Cross. Oyster roasts, shrimp and crab feasts, dances, fireworks sales; anything that would raise the money we would do.
In the early fifties, the search for a suitable building lot was completed and the Department purchased the Rowe property on Edmonston Road with proceeds from the bingo.
June 1954 our new building was dedicated by Governor Theodore R. McKeldin fulfilling many person’s dreams. When we moved into our new building we possessed two worn-out ambulances, two badly worn pumpers, very little hose, turn-Sout gear or other equipment. The fifties also produced the legislation that provided the Fire Tax. The Fire Tax, even at the time it was abolished, never fully supported the activities of the Department. Our building and the hard work of our members and the Ladies Auxiliary accounts for the eventual financial success of the Corporation. As we look back on these financially lean years, we must thank D.C.F.D. Chiefs Morris Clark, Bill Boswell and Vance Bartley for their benevolence.
In 1955 we placed into service two new Cadillac ambulances and a 1500 GPM Oren pumper. In 1959 a home alarm radio system was installed and a new 1000 GPM Mack Pumper was placed in service replacing the 1942 Buffalo. During 1961 one of the 1955 Cadillac Ambulances was traded to the Tuxedo-Cheverly Fire Department for a 1949 Mack 500 GPM Pumper. This was used until 1965 when it was sold to the Lost Creek, Pennsylvania Fire Department.
In 1961 we saw the hiring of two full-time firefighters. This was accomplished through financial assistance from the Mayor and Council of the town. In 1964 a third man was hired and in 1965 a fourth man was hired which provided paid coverage around the clock.
In 1962 a new Cadillac Ambulance was purchased to replace the 1955. Also in 1962, the Community Room on the first floor of the Firehouse was divided into three rooms for the comfort and convenience of our members.
In 1965 a new Mack 1000 GPM Diesel Powered Pumper was ordered, this was placed in service April 29, 1966. Also in December of 1965, a 1966 Cadillac Ambulance was placed in service replacing the 1962.
The sixties also found the absorbing of all paid personnel into the County Merit Employment System.
In 1969 we purchased another 1000 GPM Mack Diesel Powered Pumper and a Cadillac ambulance to replace the 1966. The 1955 Oren was sold to the Harry Lundenberg School of Seamanship at Piney Point, Maryland.
In the sixties, it seemed like we had it all, new apparatus, excellent volunteer participation, career personnel that would go that extra mile. (The blizzard of sixty-six proved this.) Also, we were recognized by the State Association and the then Governor J. Millard Tawes as having the best Fire Prevention Program in the State.
The seventies took a whole new perspective. The implementation of the Charter form of Government found ourselves facing such things as budget requests, unionizing of the career personnel over staffing of our station by the County resulting in friction between the volunteers and career personnel. At one point there were 10 career firefighters assigned to Bladensburg. The first County-owned ambulance was placed in service in 1975 and our 1969 Cadillac was donated to a fledging department in Virginia. A new model C.F. Mack was placed in service in 1979 and the 1958 Mack was placed in reserve often being loaned to other companies throughout the County.
The eighties saw a whole new ball game emerge. The career staff was reduced at our request and the “Live in Volunteer” program initiated. Also, the building that seemed so large in 1954 was now overcrowded, an addition was constructed increasing the dormitory, restrooms, offices, storage space and even a handicapped elevator was installed. Although we had a few distaff members in the late seventies we were now receiving many female members most interested in the rescue squad. Also in the eighties, a used mini-pumper and a used model C.F. Mack was purchased. The 1966 Mack was sold to the Pikesville, Maryland Fire Department. In 1988 a Seagrave Telesquirt pumper was placed in service. The ’79 Mack, Mini-pumper, ’75 Mack, ’88 Seagrave, and building addition were all financed by us, no County funds were used. The eighties also saw under the sponsorship of Joseph R. Hill the opening of “Casino Nights” at Bladensburg.
As we turned the corner into the nineties the progress would boggle your mind. More and more volunteer applications were received. Volunteers from Pennsylvania and New York would visit our station on week-ends to ride with us as we were known to be a very busy station. A state of the art command vehicle was placed in service. This vehicle has been called to use by law enforcement agencies, Armed Forces and Neighboring counties. Also, with the success of the Casino space was once again a problem. To solve this the Rohrback office building complex on Tilden Road was purchased. After extensive renovations, the administrative division, Board of Directors, Operational Officers, and Committees were moved in. Also a training center, library and apparatus maintenance bay was constructed. Included in the purchase of this property was the U.S.Post Office. With budget cuts in the County and the University of Maryland, our members could not get the training required. To combat this, training was contracted to individuals certified in their fields. Changes were made in our apparatus inventory. The Mini-pumper, 1975 and 1979 model C.F. Macks were sold. A 1991 Ford Ambulance was placed in service to supplement the County-owned ambulance. We were now again operating two rescue ambulances. Also, in 1991 a Pierce Fire-Rescue Pumper was placed in service. In 1994 another Pierce Pumper was purchased followed by the purchase of a 1996 Freightliner ambulance. With the increase in the size of the apparatus and the increase in members, we again find ourselves over-crowded. Plans are in the works for either another addition or a new complex at another location. Also in the nineties our last Mack pumper the 1969 was completely restored to new condition and dedicated to the late Raymond A. Firestein, our long-time superintendent of machinery. This is now used for ceremonial purposes. To show our appreciation to our Ladies Auxiliary a new Ford fifteen passenger van was presented to them.
A highlight of this Department was the organization of our Ladies Auxiliary in November 1931. Our Auxiliary is second to none in support of their Firemen. Without their financial assistance, we would not have been able to make ends meet at times. Even today many long hours, several nights a week, are spent by them in catering every imaginable affair in our Blade Room.
This Department has always taken an active part in affairs of the County and State Associations. We have hosted the County Convention in 1937, 1942, 1957 and 1966. We co-hosted with Cottage City Fire Company the 1972 Convention. Our members have served on the most important committees. Messers. W. R. Beattie, A.F. Gasch T.V. Moore, and K.A. Stadler, served as Presidents of the County Association. W.G. Perry served as President of the Maryland Fire Chief’s Association. Mrs. Nina Merryman, Edna Miller, and Gail Moore served as Presidents of the County Auxiliary.
Twenty-three men have served as Chief of our Department. They were George G. Wiseman, W.R. Beattie, F. William Norgle, Andrew F. Gasch, Lawrence H. Dayton, Sr., Edward N. Hill, William G. Perry, John E. Beavers, Jr., H. Eugene Gasch, Lester G. Humphries, Thomas V. Moore, John C. Wells, Lawrence H. Dayton, Jr., Gerald R. Kirby, Arthur M. Herbert, E. Dallas Carter, James 0. Craun, Thomas C. Silvers, Glenn D. Selzer, Timothy S. Delahanty, Edward Payne, Jr., Matthew R. Fowler, and Randy S. Kuenzli.
As we look back over the last 75 years, we can’t help but think about the future and hope that the years ahead will continue to produce members with a volunteer spirit, goodwill, brotherhood and community-mindedness as our original 35 Charter members.
The 21st Century
During the late part of the 90’s casino nights ended. These were a significant part of the department’s fundraising and members were quickly reminded of the need to go back to the planning stages.
The ideas of an addition to the present station or of moving to a new location were squashed but the need for additional space still remained very real. In 1996 the department purchased a used 100′, single axle Seagrave rear mount ladder truck from the then Mason-Deerfield Fire Protection District in Ohio. Time and time again plans with the County were reneged upon by the County and for several years this ladder truck was stored outside or in a Quonset hut in our back parking lot and then later aside of the engine bay.
Most of the years between 1998 and about 2003 were spent getting the department back onto its feet. While affecting all members many contributed great sacrifices but recognition to Donald S. Wells, Matthew R. Fowler and Edward L. Payne III, as the leaders administratively, operationally and financially is well deserved.
In 2003 the department was in a position to purchase three support vehicles which were assigned to the Chief Officers. These were Ford Explorers and remain in service, in good shape today.
2004 was a very productive year for the volunteers. Our live-in program was very strong and continued to grow dramatically. We broke ground for a 1.2 million dollar building addition which added two new bays to house the wagon and ladder, 8 new two-person dorm-style rooms to the rear of the new bays for our live-in members including a new locker/bath/shower facility and storage. During 2004 an offer was made to the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department to utilize the career personnel assigned to station 9 elsewhere in the county to alleviate massive overtime costs. Many months of negotiations came to fruition on November 1, 2004, when station 9, once again, became a completely volunteer-staffed station.
During these negotiations, our members established the goals and guidelines to meet and maintain staffing levels at a minimum of six personnel. This allows us to maintain an ambulance crew of two and a suppression crew of four. To this day, our Volunteers can boast a record of never going understaffed and never failing to respond on a call. In fact, not only do we maintain staffing levels significantly above that of the Prince Georgeâ€™s County Fire/EMS Career Fire Department Bladensburg Volunteers have proudly staffed a second suppression piece 87% of this time and a third suppression piece greater than 54% of the time.
Our new addition was completed in June of 2005 and occupied in July. During the later months of 2005, we began the planning of a new ambulance and signed contracts for a new American LaFrance Freightliner M2. This unit was delivered in spring and placed into service in June of 2006.
Once again, in early 2007 a committee was formed to look at the replace of Telesquirt 9, now a 19-year-old piece of apparatus that served us well while answering many calls and extinguishing a multitude of fires over her years of service. Late this year contracts were signed with Singer for a Pierce pumper.
Engine 94, a Pierce Arrow pumper with a 1250 GPM pump and 500 gallons of water was delivered in mid ’08. Its design was kept simple, based on what was known years past as a “City Pumper” with a short wheelbase of 169″, an overall length of 30′ Â¾” and height of 9′ 3″. Along with current-day technology this unit is a simple engine with the greatest ease of maneuverability, particularly in tight spaces. After many hours of driver training and fitting of equipment, engine 94 was placed in service as the primary “wagon” on November 22, 2008.
The years since the late ’90s continue to see a great volunteer interest in Bladensburg as membership continues to grow. But that is not the only thing growing, so is the workload. Our volunteers, in the latest yearâ€™s statistics, ran an average of 2700 EMS calls and 2700 Fire Suppression calls for a total around 5400 calls in 2008. During this year the men went to more than 78 “working fires”.
It is interesting to note that while Bladensburg is one of three all-volunteer stations operating within the Prince George’s county combination system, we are the only all-volunteer station that operates an EMS transport unit or ambulance. The Rescue Squad symbol is of significant pride to our corporate name and will continue to be well into the future.
Our members stand proud to provide the level of services, at the professional standards with which we do all while maintaining 100% volunteer staffing. We continue our drive to build upon the sound base which was built by those that have gone before us while working hard to meet and exceed the expectations of our founding fathers and in an effort to establish an example and security for those that will follow after us.