Fire department loses more than a century's experience

Three veteran Howard administrators retired last week

July 04, 2011|By Don Markus, The Baltimore Sun

Jeff King spent the day car shopping, but only after starting out with his ritual stop at Dunkin' Donuts.

Gary Jones got ready for what he hoped to be the first of many golf outings and performed chores from the proverbial "honey-do" list.

Jeff Loomis put in a double shift on the maintenance staff at Carroll County Hospital Center, where he has worked part-time since last summer.

That is how the three veteran Howard County firefighters spent the first day of their respective retirements last week, after ending careers that combined for more than 100 years on the job.

"One of the things everyone always told me is that you'll know when it's time to leave," King, one of the department's two deputy chiefs, said Friday. "I woke up today, I'm fine. The hardest thing today is that I had to figure out what to wear. When you're in the Fire Department, you know what to wear."

All three believe they are leaving the department in good hands.

"I've always said that Howard County is a hidden treasure, there's a tremendous amount of talent within this fire department," King said. "We've been a leader in fire services in the metropolitan area, we're very progressive, we're active in search and rescue. We've been able to purchase good equipment. We have good facilities. We keep our people trained to a higher level."

Loomis, who had been in the department since 1974, said, "When I started, you had to do everything. If there was an ambulance call, you went out on the ambulance. If there was a fire call, you went out on the engine. Now everything is staffed 24 hours a day."

King's decision to retire was spurred largely by the fact that his 23-year-old son, Ryan, recently graduated from the academy, where King gave the commencement speech.

King, who will turn 60 in November, got to spend a 13-hour shift recently with his son at Station 7. It is the place where King spent his early career and where his son now works.

"The Fire Department wasn't big enough for two Kings," joked the elder King, whose father and grandfather were also firefighters. "My legacy is done, it's there, it's time for him to build his own legacy. … It was really a smooth way to go out."

Jones, 57, the battalion chief at the academy since it opened four years ago, started thinking about a career in firefighting after a short stay at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County in the mid-1970s. Like King, he has watched the department grow considerably in manpower from around 50 to nearly 400 firefighters.

What has also changed is the mindset of the firefighter, Jones said.

"I don't know if it's changed a whole lot in what we do for the citizens — they've always been the first priority — but now we're starting to put more importance on our own welfare," said Jones, who was out in the field until 2000 before being put in charge of the department's educational technologies.

Loomis, who started out as a volunteer firefighter while working as an auto mechanic and retired as battalion chief in Ellicott City, had initially thought about retiring in January, but was persuaded by Chief William Goddard to stay on until the end of June.

What turned out to be more than a 32-year career nearly ended in January 1997. Responding to a report of a suspected car thief who had abandoned the vehicle and tried to elude police by going into the Patapsco River, Loomis jumped into the icy waters to pull him out.

"He was stuck in the middle of the river and I didn't quite make it and got swept downstream," Loomis recalled.

Suffering from hypothermia, Loomis was unconscious when he was rescued by Baltimore County firefighter John Van Ness. Loomis said he was flown by helicopter to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center and, after being released later that day, wound up spending a week in the hospital with "pulmonary issues."

Loomis didn't return to work for a month.

"It was pretty difficult for me to return to work for a while," said Loomis, who would later earn the department's Bronze Medal of Valor for saving the life of a Columbia resident in 1999. "More mentally than physically, I dealt with some issues."

Loomis, 54, said that leaving the Fire Department will be difficult because of the strong ties to his fellow firefighters.

"You spend a third of your life with those people," Loomis said. "And it's family. For me it wasn't as much leaving the department as it was leaving your family. I'll miss some aspects of the job, but I will miss those people."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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