By Alexander Tuerk
Special to The Sentinel
LARGO – Prince George’s County Fire Chief (PGFD) Benjamin Barksdale announced his retirement on July 30 from the department effective Oct. 31, when current Chief Deputy Tiffany Green will take over as interim chief.
Green’s new appointment will not become official until the county council confirms it, but her promotion marks the county’s first African American female chief and the continuation of an increasing trend in female fire chiefs in the state.
Joanne Rund was permanently sworn in as fire chief of Baltimore County on July 7, Trisha Wolford of Anne Arundel County was appointed on Jan. 28 and on Dec. 17, Christine Uhlhorn took over for Howard County.
Before her current appointment, Green made history when she became deputy to Barksdale in Dec. 2018, becoming one of the highest-ranking female fire officials in the metropolitan region.
Barksdale, 54, had served as chief since 2017. Before that, he served as chief deputy, recruited by the county in 2011 after months of negotiations while he was at the Arlington County Fire Department in Virginia, where Barksdale had served for 24 years.
“It took us a bit of time, we had to convince the chief to come here,” County Executive Angela Alsobrooks said. “He’s really helped us make a lot of key improvements in several areas.”
In a conference room at the Wayne K. Curry Administration Building, Alsobrooks said the chief’s efforts in improving the department led to new breathing apparatuses, new fire engines and retooled training and recruitment programs.
Beyond Barksdale’s influence in everything from budget meetings to staffing, Alsobrooks recalled his leadership during the aftermath of John “Skillet” Ulmschneider’s death on April 2016, when the county paramedic was shot and killed by a homeowner who believed the firefighters were intruders.
Ulmschneider was conducting a welfare check on a man believed to be in diabetic shock when repeated knocks on the door went unanswered. Ulmschneider and volunteer firefighter Kevin Swain broke down the door with the diabetic’s brother, who had called 911 nearby. All three were shot at when they entered, but only Ulmschneider was killed.
Alsobrooks said that after Ulmschneider’s death, Barksdale reached out to comfort not only his own department but the community at large.
“That’s what it’s always been about – service,” Barksdale said. He said that he felt the county was a family to him, despite his time in Virginia after growing up a West Virginia native.
“When I worked in Arlington, while I was totally committed to the department, I did not live there,” Barksdale said. “I never really felt part of the community.”
Because of his relationships with the community and with county government, Barksdale said retiring and making room for Green felt like a “passing of the baton.”
Green, a county native, gave a short speech thanking those who had helped her rise as an Oxon Hill fire department volunteer to the interim chief.
“I believe I can lead this department,” she said in response to the scope of the county’s fire department operations. The department is the 14th busiest by call volume in the nation, according to a 2018 survey by Firehouse, with 44 engines and 1,100 staff.
Alsobrooks said she wanted those present and watching to look past the historical nature of Green’s appointment and instead consider her two decades of service to the county’s fire department. Alsobrooks herself made history as the county’s first female executive after being elected in 2018.
“What I am most excited about is Chief Deputy Green is here this morning not because she is a female and not because she is a Prince Georgian, but because she is qualified,” Alsobrooks said.
The county executive referred to the county government’s efforts in offering those ready and qualified a track to higher positions.
“This government does an amazing job of succession planning,” Alsobrooks said, mentioning the police, sheriff’s office and correctional department as well. “If you have done the things necessary to develop yourself as a leader, we want to make sure you have the opportunity to lead.”