Growing up in Baltimore, a small, but major city in America, I never thought much about jobs in the business of protecting and serving.

In elementary school, I attended a small private Baptist church-school in Baltimore. Instead of allowing the students to dress up as goblins, witches or even fairy princesses on Halloween, we dressed up as what we wanted to be when we grew up.

It became our career day.

Typically, most students, especially the boys, would come to school dressed as firemen or police officers because they were typically cheap costumes their parents could purchase quickly as Rite Aid or Party City during the Halloween season.


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But, they were also careers that had a level of prestige and honor.

We were taught that cops protected us from the bad guys and kept our neighborhoods safe. Firefighters helped to ensure the safety of your home and community should a fire ever break out.

Those jobs were special. They were jobs which required a person to risk their own personal safety at the expense of others. They require personal sacrifice.

But in Baltimore, like most major cities, both the police force and the fire department are paid, usually salary jobs. Men and women of all ages, creeds, backgrounds, shapes and sizes, races and religions lay down their lives, but they are compensated.

In Baltimore, while both the police officers and the firefighters work long, grueling hours, they are compensated with pay, insurance, sick days and vacation time.

Growing up I had heard that many of the counties in Maryland had volunteer fire departments, instead of paid ones. I often asked myself, why would anyone volunteer to risk their life to fight a fire? That's absurd.

In the last few months, I was given the honor of covering the annual awards banquets for both the Aberdeen and Bel Air volunteer fire companies.

It wasn't until meeting these brave men and women and hearing the long hours, numerous calls and tons of dedication they put in, in one year's time, that I understood what the volunteer fire company was all about.

In small town America, community is key.

At the Bel Air department, one gentleman, Donald MacLean, was celebrating his 60th year with the fire company. I don't know many paid firefighters who can tout that kind of commitment or dedication.

Bel Air Town Commissioner Edward Hopkins just celebrated 40 years with the same fire company. The tale is he has been with the department since he about 4 or 5.

In small town America, when one suffers, everyone suffers. If one person loses their home to a fire, everyone does, because the town and the community have to come together to aid that family.

Men and women in Harford County risk their lives to "put the wet stuff on the red stuff," as Mr. MacLean said during his speech at the Bel Air fire banquet last weekend, because the call for a fire may be at their grandparent's home, sister's home, cousin's home, pastor's home, the home of a neighbor, family friend, childhood friend or a fellow member of the gym or PTA.

People risk their lives in volunteer fire companies because of the community understanding that the fire could impact someone they care about or a loved one.

Harford County spends tons of tax dollars every year with their volunteer fire companies. And the residents owe these brave men and women their lives.

Volunteer firefighters give so much, but yet, expect so little in return.