"You get tired, but you can't not answer a fire call,"… (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth…)
On a rocking chair in the bedroom of his home in Monkton, Chuck Bollinger keeps a stack of warm clothing. Even assleep, he insists, he can hear the fire siren blaring from less than a mile away. He can quickly don a sweat suit and heavy socks, and within minutes be out the door, into his pickup and ready to respond to whatever emergency awaits at the Hereford Volunteer Fire Station.
Chief Bollinger, a 15-year volunteer firefighter, knows that a fire, a car crash or a bad storm can set off that alarm and that a neighbor needs assistance.
Bollinger, 47, has been a top responder since joining the company in 1992 and has answered that emergency call nearly 7,000 times, all while working a full-time job in computer technology at the Social Security Administration in Woodlawn.
"If I had it to do over, I would probably make a career of firefighting," he said.
For his selfless dedication, tireless efforts, intense training and consistent leadership - he has served as chief 11 times - the Baltimore County Volunteer Firemen's Association named Kenneth Charles Bollinger III its 2009 Firefighter of the Year.
After graduating from Hereford High School, he studied computer science at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and managed volunteer stints at his home fire station during trimester breaks. After living in Virginia for several years, he returned to Hereford and rejoined the volunteer company. By 1992 he was a lieutenant and, four years later, he began his first stint as chief of the station that has been integral to its rural community since 1924.
Bollinger has endured years of interrupted meals, sleepless nights and abrupt departures from family gatherings. He rarely takes an extended vacation or even leaves town, he said.
"This was the first Thanksgiving that I can remember not having to get up from the table and answer a call," he said.
Bollinger knows his is a nearly impossible task but, he said, "Truth is, I just love it!"
He remains dedicated to the spirit of volunteerism not only in the neighborhood he has called home most of his life but also in his broader community. In September, he was elected vice president of operations for the county's volunteer association, which includes 33 companies with about 3,300 volunteers, and he oversees the association's emergency services division.
At Hereford, he oversees a $400,000 annual budget and about 100 volunteers, all while meeting rigorous training requirements, making sure six engines and an all-terrain vehicle are maintained, and helping with fundraising.
He rarely turns down an emergency call, nor does his company.
"For the last two years, Hereford has posted a 100 percent response rate," he said. "Its volunteers did not pass to another company even one call for help."
Bollinger rode on 70 percent of the 671 calls last year. He might surpass that number in 2010, if January is any indication. During a drenching rain and high-winds storm last month, he went on 10 calls in less than 48 hours. The last one ended at 4:30 a.m., three hours before he went to work at his "day job."
"You get tired, but you can't not answer a fire call," he said.
He calls his wife of 15 years, Debbie, the most understanding woman in the world. As the company's chaplain, she is well-versed in the commitment involved. They met on the job at Social Security and typically work four 10-hour days to give him more time at the station.
"My bosses are really lenient," he said. "I have had to call them from the fire grounds and take a day of vacation."
The bulk of the calls to Hereford involve automobile accidents on and near Interstate 83. Some of the worst crashes haunt him. But he has learned to balance those images with the times that a quick, well-trained response meant lives saved.
"I got a hug recently from a former Hereford classmate," he said. "Her son had survived a serious car accident. She thanked me for what I do. It doesn't take too many of those to keep you going."
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