Updated: Mar 23, 2020
Update: Needless to say, the fire chief’s work days just got a lot more complicated with the arrival of the coronavirus. But, Captain Russell Davies, the department’s public information officer, was kind enough to take a few questions regarding the crisis:
)How has the current emergency impacted the folks at the fire stations?
“The main impact has been during the response to incidents and a change to how we deploy our Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Our normal PPE on all medical calls is eye protection and medical gloves. When we are encountering a scene where a potential Person Under Investigation (PUI) is present, we would also use the N95 respirator and a gown. We are also employing Crew Resource Management (CRM) where we may limit the number of our members who have close interaction with a patient to those who are essential. Additionally, there is added emphasis on more cleaning in the station common areas and fire and EMS apparatus.”
2)How has it impacted the routine at headquarters?
“Like the rest of county government we have some personnel who are not considered essential who have been able to go to telecommuting. Essential personnel and those whose jobs don't allow them to telecommute are reporting to work as usual. We give attention to social spacing and increased cleaning of common areas.”
3) Is there anything else I haven't covered you'd like to say?
“We do appreciate the support and understanding that we are receiving from the public. They are seeing us take different actions (additional use of PPE, distancing) and while they may not always understand why they recognize that we are doing it in their interest.”
Anne Arundel County Fire Chief Trisha Wolford has celebrated her first year on the job. Looking back, she reflected on the tenacity it takes to be one of the county fire department’s members as well as the tragedies the department experienced last year.
“I think what I see as challenges are things that are truly unexpected,” she said. “The amount of (what) I would consider tragedy that we've had this year. We've had an active member off-duty death. We've had a child of a member, we've had a very close spouse of a member, retirees at a younger age than expected--all passing away.”
The new chief was aware coming into office January 28, 2019 that, in leading an organization with over 850 career firefighters and over 700 volunteer firefighters, she would be taking on more responsibility. Wolford said when she worked in Spokane, Washington as assistant fire chief, the department had about 400 members and 15 stations. Anne Arundel County has 31 stations.
“I keep a little running list of all the things I wish I would have known, or all the things that I wish other fire chiefs across the country would have told me,” Wolford said. “That's one of the things on the list--be prepared to attend more funerals than you ever thought you would attend.”
Tragedy can often be a part of the firefighting profession. Wolford started as a firefighter/paramedic for Anne Arundel County in 2006, a position she held until 2011. She comes from a family of public servants. Her dad was in law enforcement, she said, and her uncle and a cousin have worked as firefighters.
“It's truly an amazing profession,” she said.”I mean, I do, I just think it's part of my soul.”
The chief was straightforward when asked what she believes makes a good firefighter: empathy, working hard and being a good human being. She said being a good firefighter means being a good human being, who is just happy to help others. In other words, being a person who can see that small actions can add value to a community member’s life.
“You know, the core of what we do is not glorious,” she said. “I think there is a portion of this job that becomes very repetitive. Our bread and butter (are) medical calls and a natural disposition (is) to just take the next call as they come. They're not all glorified media-worthy calls--help somebody off the floor, help them use the bathroom.”
Chief Wolford set her sites on climbing the ladder (pun intended) of her field earlier on. At the age of 41, she has achieved her goal of becoming the chief in the county she started in. She is the county’s first permanent female chief and recognizes the significance of that. But there isn’t too much time in her day to dwell on it.
“You could go to the immediate big challenges, cultural acceptance, the perception of whether or not women can do the job,” she reflected. “You know, that's a whole giant sliding scale. I think, male or female, we all have the same challenges. We're trying to make sure our members are safe, that we have money to purchase apparatus that we have the right number of firefighters to put into a station. We are all dealing with the big issues of running a major department--the politics, the community."
“I think you just come to work and you do what hopefully makes the community better. I can only speak from my position...hopefully, the more female fire chiefs that people see the more acceptable it becomes. I don't think any of us said, I want to be a fire chief because there's no female fire chiefs that (are) doing it. You're like, Okay, give me my uniform. Put me in coach, I'm ready to play. Yeah, let's do this.”
She attributes her career success to her support system, especially her husband, Tim Tharp. He encouraged her to apply for her first chief position as deputy chief in Bozeman, Montana knowing that it would mean sacrifices for him as well as her. He continues to support her today in her position.
“He has been absolutely phenomenal,” she said. “ I'm not home at five o'clock. Yeah, we don't sleep through the night every night, the phone rings, this stuff happens. So I think I'm very lucky that he's willing to share a big piece of me. Because he sees how important it is to me.”
She also said her ability to become fire chief had a lot to do with simple, gritty hard work.
“Something in you has to compel you to keep your butt in a chair on a Saturday afternoon to type a paper when all your friends are hanging out, or doing something else,” Wolford said.
Wolford is not resting as fire chief. She has more goals for the department. She wants to see that the infrastructure of existing stations and apparatus are enhanced and improved. Many of the stations are getting pretty old--40 to 80 years in age, she said.
And the department continues to grow. With 60 new candidates expected to graduate in the next class, the total number of career firefighters is expected to reach toward 1,000 by 2021.
Leading so many dedicated men and women is a privilege that has not been lost on her. The weight of her office carries its own demands for keeping up a tradition of integrity and public service. She could feel it as soon as she entered her office in 2019.
“The respect that comes with the office of the fire chief, and not the individual, is something that's quite remarkable,” Wolford said. “(It) is something that really makes you work hard to keep that professional level high. It's really quite an honor...it's a very humbling experience. If you don't know how to make your job fun, then man, it's going to be some long days. There are some days that are incredibly difficult and the decisions are very difficult to make. But it really is the coolest job. It's pretty amazing.”