Craig Ralston, 46, remembers entering a burning building and finding a woman hiding behind the couch in her smoke-filled apartment.
She was frantically speaking into her cell phone in broken English. As smoke engulfed the room, Ralston said he could only see about five feet in front of him, but he managed to calm the woman and escort her safely out of the building.
Ralston is one of 110 men and women in the Ellicott City Volunteer Firemen's Association. The association provides volunteer firefighters to Fire Station 2 on Montgomery Road and Fire Station 8 on Route 99.
Trained volunteers work with career firefighters at the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue, said the department's public information officer, Bill Mould. About 648 people volunteer in the county, he said.
"They say we've got smoke in our blood," said volunteer firefighter Bill Robinson of Ellicott City. "Some people are just drawn to it like a moth drawn to light."
Becoming a volunteer firefighter was a lifelong dream for Robinson, 48. He's been volunteering for three years.
"When I was 6 years old, the house across the street burned," Robinson said. "I went with my daddy and watched the men work; I knew then I would be a fireman."
When Robinson's wife was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, his dream of being a firefighter was put on a back burner.
"I always poked and prodded and said it would be nice to be part of the department. Then came 9/11 and seeing all the brothers go down. That Christmas, [my wife] gave me an application for the Fire Department," Robinson said.
After passing a background check and physical exam, volunteers are trained in a 93-hour program, known as Firefighter 1, said Jose Sanchez, a lieutenant in the Department of Fire and Rescue's training division. Volunteers learn the basics: how to place ladders onto tall structures, pull hoses, how fire behaves, and how to enter burning buildings and douse the fire with water. They practice using the equipment and are taught CPR, first aid, and how to treat chemical burns.
Additional training is required to move up the ranks and become a volunteer officer.
"It's a great feeling to get to know someone at their worst time, help them feel better and fix up what's wrong," said volunteer Deputy Chief Craig Proffen, who's been volunteering for 30 years. He and his father were among the first members of the Bethany Fire Station on Route 99 when it opened in 1974. The younger Proffen went out on the first fire call.
By day, Proffen works with mortgage loans; his pager keeps him informed of emergencies throughout the county.
"We hear the call go out," he said. "They send engines from various stations. We listen for a few moments. If they say there is heavy fire and smoke and they need additional units, if we are in the area, we will ride to the fire station and go man the trucks."
Volunteers also work shifts at the fire stations, alongside career personnel.
"I love the camaraderie and the brotherhood of running calls," Robinson said. "It's all about teamwork. You're only as good as the weakest person on the team."
Robinson remembers his first call. "I was as nervous as a cat on a [hot] tin roof," he said. "I was convinced I would make a grievous error. The call was to the National Guard Armory, just 20 seconds away. It was my job to pull the hydrant valve off and pull the line [attach the hose]. I couldn't open the hydrant; the cap had been painted on. I was kicking it and pulling it; it wouldn't budge. Finally, I ran across the street and grabbed a mallet. I beat on it - and it finally moved.
"It's still a joke," he said. "Every time we drive by that hydrant, someone nudges me. It taught me no matter how much you prepare, something's always going to happen that you don't expect. You can't worry about what went wrong. You fix it and move on."
Chief John Klein of Ellicott City has been volunteering for 45 years. He began by accompanying his father, who had been volunteering since 1941. The younger Klein met his wife, Carolyn, while riding on the back of a fire truck in a parade.
When their two children, Kim and John Jr., were teenagers, they both volunteered. Their mother later joined.
"I fought fires for 15 years," said Carolyn Klein, who works part-time for the department in an administrative job and also volunteers. "That was back in the early '80s, at a time when women were just getting into firefighting. They didn't treat me any differently."
"It's something you do because you believe in it," Proffen said. "You do it with pride and dedication."
Besides firefighting, there are other jobs volunteers can do, such as fund-raising, running the canteen (the food truck that supplies food and drinks at big fires), supervising children's birthday parties at the fire station or being a docent at the Firehouse Museum in Ellicott City.
"I don't remember ever turning anyone away," Proffen said. "If you are interested in helping, we will find a job for you."
For information, call 410-313-2600.