Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department is second home for Simpkins family

Safety and service are part of the family legacy for Doug Simpkins Jr. and Norman Simpkins Jr.

The two Catonsville residents are among seven members of the Simpkins family who are members of the Arbutus Volunteer Fire Department on Southwestern Boulevard.

"Both are the most squared-away people you will find to manage a fire department," said John Gaither, 64, who grew up in Catonsville and is a member of the department's board of directors."They're both very good managers and supervisors. We pride ourselves on going out with crews to get the job done and a lot of that is due to their leadership."

In addition to volunteering, both Catonsville residents work as full-time career firefighters. Norman Jr., 36, is a Baltimore County firefighter and his uncle Doug, 62, works for Anne Arundel County.

"We respect their time, their qualifications and their knowledge," said Donald Gutberlet, 71, an Arbutus resident and member of the department for 55 years.

Becoming a volunteer firefighter in the Simpkins family began before Norman Simpkins was born with Doug Jr.'s father, Doug Sr.

"My father, Doug Simpkins Sr., started it all," said the department's leader as he stood in the fire station where he has volunteered for 44 years. "He instilled it into us — he told us it was the right way to go. My mom always made the comment, 'I know where my kids are. They're not out there running in the streets.' "

He said curiosity prompted him to become a firefighter in 1970 at the age of 18. Upon graduation from Lansdowne High School, he also began volunteering at the station

"It was the exploration of life — wanting to know how things work," he said.

His grandmother lived on Leeds Avenue, a short distance from the volunteer fire department, and he remembers the flashing red lights and the glow of sirens as the trucks flew by.

"Now we've passed it on to our children — my daughter, my nieces, my nephews — they're all involved," said the longtime Anne Arundel County firefighter who is getting ready to retire from his position.

In addition to his brother, Norman, Sr., nephew and daughter, Melissa, Simpkins family members with the department include Monica, Brian Sr. and Brian Jr. Two other family members — Milton and Keith Sr. were also members before they died.

Working with relatives can be "hectic", but it's "nice to know there are people there that have known you your whole life — they've raised you or helped raise you — and to know they have your back when you're out in the field," said Norman Jr.

While it is comforting to have family around, the entire department is an extension of that family, Norman Jr. said, who lives three blocks from his uncle in Catonsville.

"They are 265 people that are a family," said. "We're one, we're a team.

"I had my diapers changed here," said Norman Jr., 36, standing near his uncle in front of a fire engine on a humid Wednesday afternoon inside the fire station.

Norman's father is also a member of the station and now serves as department chief of the Romney Fire Department in West Virginia.

"It's been kind of neat watching Norman grow up from a young kid," said Joe Grusch, 59, a member of the board of directors who lives in Halethorpe.

Over the years, Doug has mentored hundreds of young volunteer firefighters, his nephew Norman Jr. being one of them.

"This department has a knack for attracting young, interested people," he said. "And those people need a mentor — someone to guide them."

Volunteers are required to receive training in the following areas: EMT, CPR, blood borne pathogens, basic HAZMAT and firefighting, he said.

Training takes four to six months, and the station is always accepting applications.

In February, Doug. will pass his leadership role as captain to his nephew, whom he has been training and mentoring for the position. He will also soon retire from the Anne Arundel County Fire Department where he has worked for 41 years.

"It won't be hard to give up, knowing that he is adequately trained," said Doug Jr., who will remain a member of the department.

Running the largest of 35 volunteer companies in Baltimore County, with 265 members and 115 active members, has its challenges, Doug said.

"It's a very immense responsibility," he said. "It weighs on you. I realize I have a group of people I'm responsible for."

Norman, a volunteer firefighter at the station since 2000, said he is confident in his preparations. "This is my third year as a senior first lieutenant," he said. "I believe with what Doug has taught me in the last three years — I'm ready to take this on."

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