Shock, then relief at Sykesville fire station over shooting of young member

Shock, then relief at Sykesville fire station over shooting of young member
Kevin Swain, Sykesville firefighter, in a photo courtesy the Sykesville-Freedom District Fire Department.

Sykesville firefighters expressed hope and optimism Saturday with the news that one of their own was in stable condition and expected to recover after being shot during a service call in Prince George's County.

Kevin Swain, 19, a mainstay at the Sykesville Freedom District Fire Department since his days with the company's junior firefighter unit as a young teen, was shot four times and seriously wounded Friday while responding to a call in Temple Hills. A colleague on the responding unit, paramedic John Ulmschneider, 37, was killed.


After surgery Friday night, Swain was listed in stable condition Saturday.

"We all feel better that he's in good spirits and is alert," said Bill Rehkopf, spokesman for the Sykesville station. "It could have gone very differently. Last night was all about processing our shock and coming to grips with the tragedy.

"Today is relief at the good progress he seems to be making," he said.

Swain grew up in Sykesville and serves as a firefighter and emergency medical technician for the Sykesville company, Rehkopf said, but he is also a live-in member at the Morningside Volunteer Fire Department in Prince George's.

He was with a unit that responded to a home after the brother of the man who lived there told authorities he was concerned about the man's safety, Prince George's fire officials said. The man said his brother had trouble controlling his blood sugar, and he was worried because his brother wasn't answering the phone or the door.

When the unit arrived on the scene, the person inside was unresponsive, so they attempted to force entry, police said. A person inside fired several rounds, striking Swain and Ulmschneider — as well as the man who had made the call for service.

Ulmschneider, a 13-year veteran of the department, died Friday night.

Swain was flown by Maryland State Police helicopter to Shock Trauma at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore where he underwent surgery for gunshot wounds, according to Sykesville department officials. The civilian was not seriously injured, and the person inside the home was taken into custody, police said. As of Saturday, no charges had been filed.

Rehkopf said he was watching baseball when he heard the first news about the shooting. Then he began receiving messages from colleagues and friends in Sykesville that one of the injured might be "one of our guys."

"It didn't take long for word to spread," he said.

Sykesville fire Chief Ed Ruch Jr., deputy chiefs Joe Dennis and Bruce Fleming, and others drove to the hospital, and later the chief met with the firefighter's family, Rehkopf said. Fire officials from other jurisdictions, including Baltimore City's fire chief, also came to the hospital, he said.

On its Twitter account Saturday morning, the Sykesville department posted a message: "Just visited with Kevin. His message to all: 'I'm alright.' "

Rehkopf said Swain's family wished to focus on his recovery. "I can tell you they are really, really appreciative of the response from the fire service, friends and the community at large," he said.

Rehkopf said that Friday and Saturday, many members of the Sykesville station on Md. 32 gathered there together. He said the mood ran the gamut Friday but took a turn Saturday as news came in that he would survive the shooting.


"At first, you don't want to believe it," he said. "Now, we're optimistic. Nobody's down. We all want to be ready to do our job."

The community, too, showed solidarity — in addition to well wishes from residents, members of the Sykesville Baseball youth program arrived with sandwiches for the members at lunchtime.

"We really appreciated that gesture," Rehkopf said. "That's one of the nice things about being in a community like this."

Kirk Engle, president of Sykesville Baseball, said fellow member Todd Fletcher made the delivery and the association shared the cost with the Safeway grocery in Eldersburg. The Sykesville Fire Department, he said, "has always been very good and very accommodating to us."

"We know they're having a tough day," he said.

Engle said he recalled Swain from his days playing baseball with the organization, and he said Swain graduated from Liberty High School last year in the same class as his own son, Nathan.

"He's a good kid," he said of Swain, "always nice, always polite. He has good parents."

Rehkopf said everyone who knows Swain can sense his devotion to his duty. After joining Sykesville's junior firefighters group — a developmental program within the service for youngsters — Swain "got bitten by it," he said.

"He's a very gung-ho kind of guy," he said.

Mark Brady, spokesman for the Prince George's County Fire Department, said the home visit in which Swain and Ulmschneider were shot is the kind of call firefighters do fairly routinely when there's a concern about someone's safety. He said any time there is an incident such as this, the department will review its protocols and possibly make changes.

"The firefighter medics made a decision that this was indeed a reason they needed to get into that house as soon as possible. Time could have been of the essence," he said.

Johnie Roth, president of the Maryland State Firemen's Association, said "our hearts go out to the families" of those injured. He said responders in uniform — firefighters, EMTs and police — go through countless hours training to be safe but still must "put themselves in harm's way" to serve the public.

Brady said Ulmschneider was described as a "good old hard-working country boy who loved his job."

Diana Krieger, whose daughter is married to Ulmschneider's brother, told The Washington Post that he was a "caring man" who had dreamed of being a firefighter since high school.

"He wanted to help others, he loved doing what he was doing, being a paramedic and a firefighter, and I really believe that he was doing God's work," Krieger told the newspaper.

On Saturday, Gov. Larry Hogan ordered the Maryland state flag to be lowered to half-staff in Ulmschneider's honor.

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this story.