PGFD Division Chief Donald "Doc" Moltrup
I first became interested in the fire service when I was three or four years old. We had a very good family friend near our home town of Beaver Falls, PA, who was the Chief of the Chippewa Township (PA) Volunteer Fire Department. We visited them often and I also looked forward to going to the fire station with him.
He also gave me all of his old issues of “Fireman” magazine, then the official magazine of the NFPA (and probably the only real fire service journal in that era). I poured through these magazines and even traced pictures of fire apparatus in advertisements in them and made up my own fictitious fire department with them.
Although my Dad was never in the fire service, he was kind of a fire buff so I went to fires with him often. I lived in State College (PA) for several of my pre-school years and a volunteer with the Alpha Fire Company in State College lived across from our house. I always saw him rushing off to fire calls and wished I could go too.
My family moved to Landover Hills in Prince George’s County (MD) when I was 6 and the local fire station was at the bottom of a big hill from our house. When the siren blew, I would run to the curb at the corner from our house to watch the apparatus go by (it always took them awhile to struggle up that hill, so I usually had plenty of time). The fire station was pretty much the center of community activity there back then. My Cub Scout Pack met there and there were other community activities that gave me a reason to go to the fire house.
Also, my Dad was a longtime ham radio operator and obtained a military surplus tank radio that he converted to receive the PG County dispatch frequency, so we would know where the calls were. My family moved to Hyattsville when I was 14 but I my folks wouldn’t let me join the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department (HVFD) until I was 18 and had graduated from high school.
When I joined HVFD in June of 1962, Hyattsville actually had a municipal fire department with a paid chief and 17 city career firefighters. There were also volunteers (including the city career firefighters who were required to live in the city and remain as active volunteers). All apparatus (except for the ambulances) and the two fire stations were city owned.
So when I joined, I had no thought of ever becoming the fire chief as a volunteer member. I spent a good bit of time at the fire station while I was going to college at the nearby University of Maryland but, other than drill and meeting nights, there were seldom members around other than the on-duty one or two career firefighters (HVFD relied on home response). I learned a lot from several of those career firefighters as well as many of the volunteers when they were there.
Another great mentor to me was Jackson Gerhardt. Jack was a volunteer deputy chief at HVFD in the mid 60’s and a DC firefighter (DCFD Engine 17’s station was recently dedicated to Jack after renovation – Jack died in the line of duty in PA after his retirement from DCFD). As soon as I completed my Advanced First Aid training (there was no EMT then) and started riding the ambulance, I delivered three babies in my first few weeks. One of the city captains gave me the nickname of “Doc” because of that and it has stuck ever since.
I completed the Maryland Fire Rescue Institute (MFRI) basic firefighter training as soon as I could at the nearby Riverdale Fire Dept. but much of the initial “training” was OJT (On the Job Training). I soon became the department secretary and attained the rank of Fire Sergeant. Upon becoming an apparatus driver, I worked as a part-time firefighter/driver for the City of Hyattsville.
In 1967, Prince George’s County hired the first county firefighters and assigned two to each fire station. It quickly became a difficult situation having both city and county firefighters working together in the same station. The City of Hyattsville decided to get out of the business of running a fire department and turned over all department assets to the volunteer fire department. It was quite a culture shock for that department that had been used to a municipal operation with a paid chief to suddenly become a primarily volunteer department. I was elected to the rank of Captain in 1968 and Asst. Chief in 1969. I rose to the rank of Chief in 1970 and held that position until my retirement at the end of 2005.
Soon after becoming Fire Chief, I spoke to Professor John Bryan of the University of Maryland who headed their excellent Fire Protection Engineer Program about initiating a student live-in program at HVFD. The nearby College Park VFD located on the UofM campus had been the sole live-in station for students in that program and there were more applicants than they could accommodate. We initiated the program with referrals coming from Professor Bryan. Eventually, we opened the live-in program to students from other colleges and programs.
We always maintained fairly rigorous standards to qualify for the program (e.g. prior training and experience) and requirements for participation (i.e. minimum number of nights per week on duty, weekend duties, etc.). Many of our former live-in members have remained very active as volunteers in the department long after their tenure as live-ins. The current Fire Chief, Dave Hang, was a former HVFD live-in as are many of the current line officers.
During my tenure at HVFD, I also held a number of volunteer positions with the Prince George’s County Fire and EMS Department. I was among a group of volunteer chiefs who initiated the first volunteer battalion chief (BC) program in the county during the early 1970s to ensure having a senior command officer at all significant incidents. I continued acting as a volunteer BC until my retirement. I also served as one of the first Volunteer Division Chiefs in the county (we initially had a North and South Division).
Finally, I was selected as the first (and only) Volunteer Deputy Chief of PGFD. I “retired” form that position after about a year to devote most of my time and attention to HVFD. I believe that I maintained an excellent working relationship between volunteer and career personnel I worked with throughout my tenure.
The first working high-rise fire I commanded was in 1978 and involved a 10 story condo building in our first due area. Fire was leapfrogging up the side of the building and also extending down the hall from the unit of origin to and past the elevator lobby. It was one of the few instances where a simultaneous exterior and interior attack was warranted. We actually used a portable monitor in the hallway to stop the fire from spreading further inside and hand lines on the outside to keep the fire from extending up to other floors.
Unfortunately, we had one fatality of a woman trapped in the hallway who was located in an exit stairway after she had received fatal injuries. We held an extraordinary critique after this fire the included Frank Brannigan discussing building construction issues, fire investigators discussing cause and origin, autopsy data on the deceased individual as well as the more typical fire ground operational assessment.
Along the way I also was greatly influenced by Jim Estep, who served as the PGFD chief for a number of years, and by my good friend and fellow fire chief (of the Bladensburg VFD in PG County), Tom Moore. Tom was a lawyer and former judge and a fellow PGFD Division Chief. I often sought his advice on handling administrative, disciplinary and operational concerns.
A Family Affair:
My younger brother, David, joined HVFD when he was old enough to do so; primarily due to my influence (he had shown no interest in the fire service before I got involved in it). He went on to be a career firefighter in Montgomery County (MD) and retired at the end of 2005 as a Captain with 38 years of service there. He is also a Life Member of HVFD.
My Son, Dale, was also a member of HVFD for a number of years and is a Life Member.
My oldest grandson Patrick, who is currently on his second deployment in Afghanistan with the U.S. Marines, is a member of HVFD and plans to become a live-in there when he gets out of the service. He was previously a member at Odenton (MD) VFD and a live-in at Lower Allen Township (PA).
I met my wife, Carole, through the fire department. Her son, Dale, was a young volunteer member and had been disciplined with a suspension by the career officer at the station. She came to the station and complained to me about her son’s suspension. I told her that, regardless of the merit of the disciplinary action, her son was an adult and didn’t need his Mother coming up to intercede. She thought I was the most arrogant SOB she had ever met! Apparently I made a good impression in spite of telling her off, however.
She started riding the ambulance and later served as Secretary and Asst. Treasurer of the department. She’s now a life member of HVFD.
I am an honorary member of two of Hyattsville VFD’s sister fire companies in Pennsylvania: New Franklin and Waynesboro. I have also served the Maryland State Firemen’s Association (MSFA) as chairman of the Board of Review that acted on requests for state grants from volunteer fire departments that needed assistance to maintain minimum state standards. I am a Life Member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs and the Maryland Fire Chiefs Association and a member of SPAAMFAA.
My family has always been very supportive of my fire service activities, in part because they (my wife and son) were also involved in the service. Since I met my wife in the fire department, she was well aware of my commitment to the fire service prior to our marriage.
Balancing Family and the Firehouse:
This was always a difficult issue. My wife knew about my involvement in the fire service when we met (although she often felt she was “competing” with the fire service for my time). However, her involvement in the fire service as well as that of my Son and Grandson made it generally a family affair.
While I tried to generally not let the fire service interfere greatly with family activities, it always seemed that I was the on-duty Battalion Chief or Division Chief on important holidays and other family occasions. My family was very understanding when I had to leave the dinner table or family celebration to go on a call.
The darkest and saddest moment of my career was being notified of the line-of-duty death of one of my volunteer members, Alan P. Sondej, in 1988. Al was a 36-year old student live-in member who was close to getting his PhD from U of M.
In January of that year, Al was part of the crew on our ladder truck responding in the early morning hours as first due truck on a house fire to a neighboring town.
Al was conducting a search in the well-involved house when he was caught in a flashover and severely burned. Although his burns were severe and he had been in the burn center for a long time, we all believed that Al, who was a big and very strong guy, would survive. However, on March 16th, I received word that he had passed away from complications related to the burns. This was a devastating blow to me and the department. Our current ladder truck is dedicated to Al.
I made a number of officially sanctioned ride-along visits in the 1970s to the fire departments in Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles (City). The hospitality was fantastic at all of these visits. On my first visit to Chicago, for example, then Chief Fire Marshal Curt Volkamer personally met me and the others in my group at the Chicago Fire Academy on a Sunday afternoon when we arrived there.
On the Boston trip, we spent nearly a week in a busy Boston fire station and weren’t allowed to spend a penny for meals or even drinks in some local pubs. On another arranged visit to the Tokyo (Japan) Fire Department, the World’s largest, I had a personal meeting with the Fire Chief and he presented me with a beautiful plaque with a figure of an ancient Japanese firefighter.
I’ve been blessed to be on the receiving end of fire service brotherhood a few other times too. Once I was having my roof redone on my house and one night we left it with only tar paper on it until shingles could be applied the next day. A severe storm came up and the wind blew off all of the tar paper in a few seconds. I called the fire house and the crew immediately came to my aid and spread tarps on the roof before any significant damage was done.
On another occasion, my Grandson, Mason, who has severe Spina Bifida and is paralyzed below the waist, was granted a wish by the Make-A-Wish foundation to go to Disney World with his family. He also needed funds to purchase a light weight wheelchair that Medicaid would not cover. HVFD did a boot drive to aid Mason and raised enough money to buy the wheelchair as well as provide some extra money for the kids to use on their Disney trip.
Fortunately, we’ve had the opportunity to repay that brotherhood too. Immediately after 9/11, we received word from a former HVFD live-in who was an FDNY firefighter that his company had lost their apparatus and virtually all small tools and equipment.
While they had a reserve rig, they didn’t have equipment for it. HVFD rounded up all the spare small tools and equipment we could and took it to New York so this company could have tools to work with until they could be replaced. Once they received new tools from their department, we got all of the loaned tools and equipment items back in good condition.
I had many proud moments during my career, including my election as fire chief of HVFD at age 26 in 1970. Perhaps the proudest moment, however, was at the “Doc-a-Palooza” event put on by the department to celebrate my retirement after 35 years as chief.
However, I was very proud to lead the department every day of those 35 years and I remain proud of what they are doing today. I’m also very proud of the many members and alumni who passed through HVFD and have become leaders in the fire service and other fields.
Among these are Dave Iannone, Chris Hebert, Bill Carey, Dennis Rubin (past chief of Atlanta and DC fire departments).
Bill Barnard is currently the State Fire Marshal of Maryland and Mark Smith is fire marshal of Alachua County Florida. Other alumni include: Tom Kean (former New Jersey state senator and republican nominee for U.S. senate, and son of 911 Commission Chairman Tom Kean), J. Gordon Routley, Andy Levy (past HVFD live-in and Asst. Chief and currently Coordinator of the MFRI North Central Region) and Dr. David Icove (professor at University of Tennessee and acknowledged leading expert in the field of arson pattern recognition); to name a few. I would like to believe that their experiences at HVFD had an impact on their successes.
Although I have been “retired” from the fire service for 5 years now, I still stay involved at HVFD (even though I live in Florida now). I am on the apparatus committee and visit the station just about every month when I am traveling to the DC area for my engineering consulting work. I really enjoy the camaraderie of the people at HVFD and I am proud of my service to HVFD and the fire service and feel good about where the department has come.
What I enjoy most during my frequent visits is interacting with the younger members and telling stories about how the department and the fire service have evolved. I think they appreciate hearing about the legacy they have inherited and the many lessons to be learned from past experiences. I also really enjoy the attending the annual HVFD holiday party/reunion when I get to see and talk with many of our alumni, both volunteer and career, as well the current members.
The Importance of Storytelling:
I believe that storytelling is a very important opportunity for older and more experienced members to relate to the newer members the importance of the legacy of their fire department and the fire service as well as relating experiences that may prove valuable to those with less experience in the fire service.
It is important to capture many of these stories as is being done with your Firefighter Storytellers radio show. Without this, much of the history of fire departments and the fire service will be lost along with the experiences that could be very valuable to these newer members.
Speaking of storytelling, if I could tell the next generation anything about the fire service is that it requires a great deal of commitment. If you don’t have a passion for it, then perhaps it isn’t for you. But if you do have that passion, then you are entering into a lifelong brotherhood that will be very rewarding and satisfying.
You should take every opportunity to learn from those that have more experience in the service and take as much training as you can get. Your life, and that of your fire service brothers, depends greatly on your training, skill and experience and you can’t let yourself, your family or your brother firefighters down in this regard.
Every department has well experienced members and retirees who have a great deal of valuable knowledge to pass on – take advantage of it while you can.
About the Hyattsville Volunteer Fire Department (www.hvfd.com): The department is located in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C. HVFD operates as acombination volunteer and career fire station with approximately 60 active volunteer members of the department and four County career personnel (including one officer) who work daytime on weekdays only. The department responds to nearly 6,000 emergency calls annually. Operationally, the department is led by a Fire Chief and two Deputy Chiefs along with a number of Captains, Lieutenants and Sergeants. All line officers, other than the Fire Chief, are appointed. All members and officers must meet minimum standards for that office established by Prince George’s County. Administratively, the tax-exempt corporation is led by a Board of Directors and an appointed President. Apparatus includes two engines (new engine on order), a tractor-drawn aerial, a heavy duty rescue squad and two BLS ambulances, along with several support vehicles.
HVFD has hosted live-in student members since the early 1970’s. This type of program can be a great asset to many fire departments but requires some stringent guidelines and selection criteria to be in place to ensure success. One of the major considerations with such a program is to maintain a good relationship between the “live-ins” and local members so that neither group feels that the other isn’t “pulling their weight” in the department. HVFD was recently awarded a $244,000 SAFER grant to fund our Tuition Reimbursement program for a period of four years. For more information about firehouse live-in programs, check out www.fdlivein.com and www.firerecuiter.com.
Editor’s Note: Donald “Doc” Moltrup was a guest on Tiger Schmittendorf’s Firefighter Storytellers Internet Radio Show on the FirefighterNetcast Podcast & Radio Network which premiered at 9pm EST on April 13, 2011. The show was taped on March 25, 2011 at the Fire Department Instructors Conference in Indianapolis IN.