Bethesda Interview: Pete Piringer
The chief spokesperson for the Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service talks about the 24/7 news cycle, and how he always seems to be out of town when big things happen
Where were you when the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred?
So we’re at the Executive Office Building [in Rockville] on the 12th floor. …There was all kinds of information, sketchy information about planes doing this or doing that. Everybody leaves because they are fire department people and they have places to go and I’m like sitting there. Then they started talking [on TV] about D.C. stuff, and I look over [through the window] and I see smoke [rising from the area of the Pentagon], and I’m like, damn. …The radio was totally quiet, it was, like, weird. Then they activated the Urban Search and Rescue [Task Force, based at MCFRS] to go to the Pentagon. We ended up going, and we got there very quickly…and it was still burning, and then we started sending fire trucks. In those days, [departments] didn’t really talk to each other.
I left. Then I ended up going back. I was there when [President George W.] Bush showed up, so I think it was the next day. What was interesting about it was, I’m there, I know most of the media people. They have set up on a hill that overlooks the Pentagon. And there was nobody talking to them. You could see what was happening, but no information. So I am talking to our search and rescue guy who’s in there and Dave Statter, a Channel 9 reporter at the time. He said, ‘Can you talk?’ I was not comfortable [taking the lead in providing information]. So for the 11 o’clock news, [Montgomery County Assistant Fire Chief] Scott Graham comes up out of the rubble, so Statter interviews him. That was the first kind of ‘from the scene’ of what we had there.
Were you the PIO when the Amtrak train derailed in Kensington in 2002?
Yes and no. It’s kind of a longstanding joke, like stuff always happens when I go out of town. People fill in for me. My daughter who was at the Naval Academy, she was up in Rhode Island—Newport—for something. We were up there. It was a beautiful day in Narragansett Bay and [fire] Capt. [Oscar] Garcia calls me up: ‘Hey, you aware of the train crash in Kensington?’ But I was back the next day.
Same thing for the Arlis Street explosion [in 2016 at the Flower Branch Apartments in Silver Spring]. I had just returned from a European trip—Greece—and I had bitten an olive pit and broken my front tooth, so I had half a tooth. Got back that evening right before there was an explosion. I’m listening to it on the radio and I’m like, ah, somebody’s covering for me. I’ve got a broken tooth, I’m going to the dentist the next day. I don’t want anybody to see it. But then it was bad, so at like 5 o’clock, 4 o’clock in the morning, I go out there and they have everything media-wise under control. But it was Capt. Garcia who was filling in for me again. It just seems like something always happens when I’m away.
But you were in the county during the October 2002 sniper attacks.
That particular time, I was coming back from the beach. It was a Monday morning, early. I get a call from communications: ‘Hey, giving you a heads up, we had a guy who was cutting grass over in Rockville somewhere and we think some shrapnel hit him and the medics are taking him to the hospital.’ And then there was a shooting at Leisure World [shopping center]. Lady sitting at a bench. Probably suicide. Right about that time, the medics on the ambulance with the landscaper said, ‘Hey, this is not shrapnel. It looks like a gunshot exit wound. We’re on the way to the hospital.’ A shooting. OK. So [other medics are] up there [at Leisure World]. And it’s kind of weird because there’s no weapon, but obviously a fatal injury. I’m like, it’s a police thing. Then another call is coming in for a shooting and I’m like, Is there, like, a gang…? Then the media is calling me.
Later that day, somebody goes, ‘Hey, you know, there was a shooting last night [at the Shoppers grocery store in Aspen Hill],’ which at that time, shootings [were] unusual. And there was the gas station shooting, and then we started telling everybody: ‘All fire trucks return to your stations.’ We didn’t know if it was a terrorist thing or a gang or whatever. We went on lockdown.
I remember we were in Aspen Hill and there was a big gaggle of media there, and they were like, ‘What’s going on?’ And so [Montgomery County Police] Chief [Charles] Moose comes up to me and says, ‘We don’t know what’s going on, but I’m going to headquarters.’ I said, ‘Chief, there’s news media showing up here. We should have a briefing or something.’ He says, ‘Well, I don’t have anything to say to them. I don’t know what to say.’ And so we just had a little inside-baseball discussion and I said, ‘Let your PIO update the people on what we know at this point.’ So it ended up Chief Moose did the interview and it went OK. But they were just asking him all kinds of questions, and we didn’t have answers.
How has your relationship with the media changed over the years?
The news cycle is 24/7. It’s a blessing and a curse. Social media is part of it, but it does make things a lot easier. It does give you an opportunity to get timely, accurate information out there. And in a disaster or an emergency…at the end of the day, everybody just wants to be safe. You want your family to be safe. You want your community to be safe. We’re in the safety business.
Let’s talk about your use of Twitter.
In the beginning, we were just trying to figure it out. Not just necessarily eliminating the press releases, but just kind of eliminating phone calls, because say you have a fire, everybody’s calling, so it’s like 10 phone calls for one incident. Twitter was just a platform where you could put out some information, address a house fire.
Now it’s to the point where the advantage is that you can put some info out that in the old days you couldn’t possibly [have disseminated so widely]. But then you think about it from a disaster or safety perspective—road closures or flooded roads, trees down, stuff like that—you can integrate a safety message and then link to further information. The audience is still the media. They rely on it. In fact, every once in a while, I’ll do a tweet-free day.