When Laurel Volunteer Fire Department Chief Trey Kelso moved to the city in 1999 with his future wife, Lisa, their decision was based on a somewhat unusual criteria.
"When we decided where to live, we centered where we were moving to where I was going to volunteer," Kelso said, chuckling, inside the station located off Cherry Lane.
The 36-year-old Kelso, who is wrapping up his second month on the job, said he hopes to continue facilitating the department's shift back to "the old school" way of doing things.
What does that entail? For Kelso, it's about restoring and maintaining the quality and quantity of the volunteer corps.
"We were at a point over the last couple of years where we were losing members," Kelso said. "Right around the housing bubble, we lost a lot of members because people had to focus on their work and make sure they were employed."
Kelso estimates that the department, which now boasts an 80-member firefighter corps, was down to almost half that number at its lowest point.
"We had to adapt," Kelso said. "There were some changes we needed to make."
Kelso said the department upped the standard of accountability it held for its volunteers, making sure that people were following through on their commitments.
"The past chief (Travis Pearcy) did an excellent job of reining that in, and now we are developing on what he put forth," he said.
Kelso said the department has also done a better job of soliciting interest in young recruits, and has worked harder to make sure they follow through on their training.
As a result, the department has received an influx of new volunteers, which, as Kelso said, comes with a lot of "hand-holding."
Former volunteer chief and current Assistant Chief Brad Lovell believes Kelso will be up to the challenge.
"We always deal with asking people to take time out of their days to staff the station," Lovell said. "Family always comes first, but your family at the firehouse also needs you. Trey reiterates that in person as well as by email and on the phone. He's not 'do as I say, not as I do,' he really subscribes to the theory practice what you preach."
And while the department has bulked back up, possible budget cuts by the Prince George's County government could threaten the station again. According to Kelso, the volunteer station, like all other stations in the county, works with the government's Career Emergency Response Department.
From 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, the station is staffed with four career firefighters supplied by the county. However, that support could change should the county scale back their support of career personnel.
"They are asking a lot of volunteers, so it is important we have a strong corps," Kelso said. "This department will survive. The citizens of Laurel have always had a good relationship with this department, we are really focusing on tradition, recruiting and retention."
While volunteers may be needed, signing up for the LVFD is not something that should be taken lightly.
"We take pride in training our people; we take pride in establishing criteria above and beyond," said Lovell, who served as chief from 2009-2010.
Lovell spoke about the challenges of balancing volunteer work and family life, something which the chief must do better than anyone else.
"It's like a second full-time job," said Kelso, whose wife works as an administrative volunteer at the station.
'It's a business'
While the story of how Kelso ended up in Laurel is a bit unorthodox, how he became a firefighter is just as happenstance.
Unlike some volunteer rescue personnel, Kelso didn't grow up believing he was meant to serve. His first introduction to emergency response came in 1996 as a student at Syracuse University, where, as an information technology major, he needed to scratch a particular itch.
"I was originally interested in sports medicine and bioengineering, and I kind of went on a different path and fell into IT," Kelso said. "The reason I did my EMT was because I was still interested in the medicine aspect, and it kind of snowballed from there."
Before long, Kelso was volunteering at DeWitt Fire Station just outside of the city limits and, upon graduation, faced the decision to pursue a career in IT or as a professional firefighter.
Ultimately, Kelso, who works for Dataprise Inc., in Rockville, chose to go into business, receiving his Master of Businesss Administration from Frostburg State University.
Kelso believes his education and business experience is something he can leverage for his daily duties as chief.
"I know very well, inside the station, or out on the fire ground, it is a business," Kelso said. "We provide fire protection and emergency services to the public."
Kelso described his leadership style as to that of a business manager — someone who gives people the power to do what they need to do.
"In order to be successful here, you need to listen to all sides of the story," he said. "My big thing is we all know history can repeat itself, and I'm not going to have us repeat the bad things that have happened in the past."
"He's very good at supporting people and patting them on the back," Lovell said. "And I 100 percent support him in every role possible."