Flames were shooting from the house on Drop Forge Lane in Gaithersburg when Pete Piringer, chief spokesperson for the Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service (MCFRS), arrived at the scene that cold December day in 2014. A twin-engine executive jet, on approach to nearby Montgomery County Airpark, had crashed into the house, breaking up on impact and sending a wing and other parts into two other nearby homes.
“The house is on fire, there’s cars in the driveway, we think people are in the house,” Piringer recalls. “The media is showing up, fire trucks are coming…and here comes this guy down the street.”
Since the firefighters were busy, Piringer approached the man and asked him to stay safely away from the scene. “That’s my house,” the man said. “I’ve been calling my wife; she’s not answering.”
Piringer spoke with the man, Ken Gemmell, whose wife and two young sons—a 3-year-old and a newborn—were inside. “He was in a bit of a shock, so I had to take him aside and deal with that situation. It wasn’t my job, it just happened.”
The fire killed Gemmell’s wife, Marie, and the couple’s sons—their then 7-year-old daughter was at school at the time—and the three people on the plane died in the crash. That was one of the most challenging days in Piringer’s 44 years in public safety. In addition to his time in Montgomery County, his career has included jobs with the Maryland State Police, the city of Laurel, and the fire departments of Prince George’s County and Washington, D.C. This is his second stint as the public information officer (PIO) for MCFRS.
Piringer, who lives in Rockville, has been a local tour de force on Twitter since creating his MCFRS account in 2014, tweeting or retweeting sometimes dozens of times a day about everything from house fires and car crashes to reminders about checking smoke alarm batteries. In nearly six years, he’s posted more than 85,000 tweets, many with videos he’s taken, and amassed more than 18,000 followers. Now 66, Piringer says he was an early adopter of Twitter, recognizing its potential for spreading information quickly and accurately. Occasionally, he indulges his sense of humor, like when he tweeted last year that there was “not a latte’ of smoke” coming from a small fire in an Olney Starbucks. Though he uses a smartphone to tweet, he prefers to use his old flip phone when calling reporters because he can hear better on it outdoors.
Nicknamed “PIO Pete,” Piringer grew up in College Park and joined the local volunteer fire department as a junior firefighter when he was 16, following in the footsteps of his older brother. He’s been a member of the College Park Volunteer Fire Department ever since, and has served as the department’s president for the past 15 years. Piringer and his wife, Pat, a nurse at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, have been married for 44 years and have three grown daughters.
We spoke in Piringer’s office at the county’s Public Safety Headquarters in Gaithersburg, where he is surrounded by memorabilia from his long career. The walls are covered with signs outlining communication strategies, including one that’s handwritten on a sheet of paper and succinctly states his guiding mantra: “What Do You Know? Who Needs To Know? Have You Told Them Yet?”
You left your first stint with MCFRS for the same job in D.C. How was it different working for the city?
There was a lot of work, but it was kind of fun. There’s all kinds of things going on. There’s elected officials, politics, 87 or 90 different law enforcement agencies, and the fire department. I was there for some big snowstorms, Snowmageddon, when D.C. was shut down, [and] for the earthquake [in 2011].
Tell me about the earthquake.
We were at the MLK memorial. It hadn’t opened yet. They were having a VIP reception walk-through. I was staffing Mayor [Vincent] Gray, which I would do from time to time for the media. So he leaves and we’re standing there talking to some firefighters [when the earthquake hit]. I call communications: ‘Got something going on?’ ‘We don’t know, but there’s all kinds of alarms going off downtown and people are evacuating.’
I’m like, ‘Well, call the national geological folks and see if there’s something going on.’ I get in my car. It’s the middle of the day, I’m coming up on the Washington Monument and there’s, like, people running, cars are jumping the curb. So I turn on Constitution Avenue. This is the biggest road in D.C. and there’s not one car on Constitution Avenue.
Communications [called] me back and said, ‘Yes, they had an earthquake somewhere in Virginia.’ This was in the very early years of Twitter. So I started tweeting out ‘possibly earthquake.’ Nobody knew what was going on. By the time I got to our command post [by the former Verizon Center, now Capital One Arena] and put some information out, the media is calling me and I looked out and the streets are just jammed because the government let everybody out at the same time. I started getting information that there was damage at the Washington Monument, the National Cathedral, a couple embassies. At the Ecuadorian Embassy, the chimney fell down in the street. Nobody had gotten that information yet, like the mayor didn’t know, but I was getting it. It was kind of weird because initially they were saying there’s no damage, there’s no problem, nothing going on, and I’m like, uh, yes there is.