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
Why? This is a method of torture for journalists.
Just to keep people honest, to let them know how good they have it.
How do you decide what to tweet and which videos to post?
It’s just my observations. It just seems to me that I’m having a conversation with my group of followers about whatever I’m observing—might be a fire, might be a training [for firefighters]. Sometimes people will say, ‘Why do you put out these wrecks?’ Well, a lot of us drive around, and if a lane is blocked, first of all you might like to know it. Or you could take another route maybe. Or I would frequently get calls, ‘Hey, why is there a fire truck in front of the building?’ or ‘What happened on 270 earlier today?’ So it just eliminates those calls. And it’s like, I know about it, I hear it, so why not?
You have to be accurate because some people post misinformation.
I don’t know what they’re teaching in journalism schools now, but [it] used to be that people would not take my word for it. They would go check, need another source. I’m OK with that. I’m pretty confident in what I’m telling you. [But] I have to consider my sources, too. I’ve learned that a firefighter might tell me something ; sometimes it’s like, well, somebody told him and he thinks he knows what happened.
Last March, two bearded dragons were found on the same day in two separate incidents, and your tweet included lizard emoji. Is that one of the weirdest things you’ve had to deal with?
I have to admit, I’ve never had two bearded dragons in the same day. I’m in my office, I’m listening to the radio, they’re responding up there [to a car crash on Route 28 in the Potomac area]. I’m like, you know, whatever, this is kind of interesting. And then I’m at the firehouse and I hear some guys talking about the bearded dragon and I’m like, ‘Wait. Are you talking about the call up on 28?’ ‘No, man. We just came from a house fire and they rescued a bearded dragon.’ I said, ‘No way.’
Was that the most unusual thing you’ve ever had?
No. We had the guy stuck in mud at Lock 6. Eighty-seven-year-old guy lived there in Cabin John, walking the dogs, down by the C&O Canal. Well, our Swift Water Rescue Team, I’m hearing them go out for a rescue and it was kind of an unusual place. The dogs are chasing sticks, so they’re off the beaten path. He goes down by the river, he goes to retrieve a stick and he steps in the mud and then he puts his other leg [down]. He’s facing out towards the river, [yelling] ‘Help! Help!’ Well, he’s off the trail. He’s there for about an hour and finally a guy on a bike comes by, sees the two dogs up on the trail with a leash and all muddy. So the biker stops and he’s like, ‘I wonder what these dogs are doing here?’ He hears the guy, goes down, the guy’s sinking, can’t get out. So the [biker] calls 911, flags down another biker, they try to get him out, they can’t. They put a log under the guy so he can sit down. So we get there and we got him out.
There was that horse that got stuck in Burtonsville.
That was, like, two years ago. I can’t remember the horse’s name, but it was a famous horse. It was in movies. It was a huge horse. It was at this farm, enjoying the good life. And it was walking in this field and it stepped on this old cistern and dropped in. The only thing showing was the head. It was on a hill, so they ended up excavating into the hill and they walked the horse out. It took a while.
What’s it like to go home after a particularly bad day?
I guess the toughest thing is we all have kids and you associate something in your personal life, but you train and you just can’t get emotionally involved. Probably the toughest you ever deal with is the death or serious injury of a co-worker, or firefighters. In Prince George’s County, two friends of mine died, were killed in a relatively short period of time. That was probably the toughest thing I ever…being the PIO for the event and then for the funeral and then just knowing them. There’s all kinds of other moments that are fantastic because you save someone’s life. I’ve gotten a gold medal of valor from Prince George’s County for pulling somebody out of a burning car when I was assigned to communications—that was 1987. Right around that same year, I was assigned to communications and I was just stopping by the [911 center], saying hi to old friends. I was just sitting down, having lunch. It’s getting busy, the phone’s ringing. The 911 line starts ringing: ‘My baby stopped breathing.’ I’m like, ‘Yes, ma’am, do you know CPR?’ She goes, ‘No.’ I told her I got the ambulance on the way. Then I’m telling her [how to administer] CPR. We had flip charts so you could talk somebody through it, and we could be pretty fast with it. So I was able to give her some advice and the child started breathing. Just recently, I get an email, it says, ‘You don’t remember me,’ but I do remember. She had pictures of her—I get all emotional—pictures of her son. He’s married, he’s a social worker. It’s pretty cool.
Julie Rasicot lives in Silver Spring and is the deputy editor of the magazine.