Westminster firefighters break bread, give thanks while keeping city safe

It’s noon on Thursday, Nov. 22 and three Westminster firefighters huddle around a trashcan in the firehouse kitchen peeling potatoes.

Firefighters go all out for Thanksgiving, too.


This crew in particular — known as Shift D — have it down to a science. This is the fifth consecutive Turkey Day they’ve been on the clock, said Lt. Mike Hess, who oversees the six-man unit.

A fire at the FR Conversions building in the 1200 block of Tech Court in Westminster Tuesday afternoon caused damage, but no injuries were reported to civilians or emergency responders.

Hess, Lee Bowers, the ranking engineer, and medic Matt Hafler drop the skinned tubers into a sizable pot — the beginnings of what will become a tray of mashed potatoes.


“Did you just drop that whole thing in there?” Hess asked a guilty-faced Hafler.

Sure did.

For firefighters and their medic colleagues, working on holidays like Thanksgiving is business as usual. Someone has to be there to help when an over eager chef loses focus, sending their deep fried turkey up in flames.

“I was watching YouTube videos yesterday of people blowing up turkeys,” medic Ed Burrell said.

Frozen poultry. Deep fryer. Bad combo.


Thankfully the Shift D unit has yet to respond to flaming bird, Hess said. “Knock on wood.”

We eat together. We train together. We see horrible events together... Everything is done together. That’s why it’s a fire department family.

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While they experience the holiday away from their immediate family, they share it with their fire department family — that which they spend 25 percent of their lives with, Hess explained. At the Westminster Fire Department, the lifesavers work 24 hours on and then 72 off.

“We eat together. We train together. We see horrible events together and help each other through those,” said Chief Jason Tyler. “Everything is done together, that’s why it’s a fire department family.”

“The turkeys have arrived,” Bowers said, peering through the back door of the firehouse as a dark SUV pulled up.

On Thursday, firefighter William Buck’s mother, Paula, brought in two turkeys — one deep fried, another smoked. Bowers and his colleagues carried the birds to the larger of two kitchens within the fire house.

“A lot of times when you’re at work, you can plan to invite the families in with them … especially on the holidays,” said Lt. Kim Darby, a 12-year Westminster Fire Department veteran. “It’s good that we have a facility like that at the station. We have a big kitchen that we can use and incorporate everybody in.”


Families blend together.

“It is a little bit different than having a family meal at home,” Darby explained. “But your shift becomes your family. You know them. You know their spouse. You know their kids. And you try to make it a holiday at work.”

When the on-duty emergency personnel get a call, it’s all hands on deck. Dinner must wait.

“If we get a call we’re up and out the door,” said Darby, whose shift did not work Thursday.

The Westminster Fire Engine and Hose Company No. 1 began roughly 195 years ago in 1823, when members erected a plain board firehouse with two large doors, no windows and a shingle roof on Church Street. The engine house moved in 1834 to Main Street, where it doubled as a jail.

At 2:04 the bell blared.


Within seconds the six first responders were in the truck bay, suited up and in their ambulances and firetrucks, leaving behind the warmth and comforting smell of the kitchen.

Minutes later they arrived on scene, the cold bitter and wind biting. The collision left a small white sedan mangled, but luckily yielded no injuries.

Hess said that two years ago the bells rang just after they’d finished cooking and laid the Thanksgiving feast on the long wooden table that bares the fire company’s name. Their first priority remains saving lives, no matter how tasty the home-cooked meal.

It’s hard with a family but you just end up making Christmas a different date, Thanksgiving a different date and it all works out.

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They’re pros. But that doesn’t make being away from their families easy.

“It’s hard with a family,” Darby said. “But you just end up making Christmas a different date, Thanksgiving a different date and it all works out.”

Darby’s husband is a police officer. He too has worked many holidays.

It was especially hard when their children were younger, she said. “Because they didn’t understand why Mommy had to go to work.”

Being away from their families strengthens the fire family bond. As does experiencing the spectrum of calls — from unimaginable tragedy to false alarm.

“You go through the worst with them, we see all kinds of things at work,” Darby said. “You develop a bond with them.”

Shifts often break bread together. Their conversations vary. It can be light hearted and it can be serious.

“We ran a fatal fire last week, so we discussed how everyone was handling that,” Darby said. “We run overdoses on a daily basis and that’s not really something you, I don’t wanna say ‘get used to,’ but we run it so much that the people that we’re with understand and you learn to read them if somebody is having a harder time.”

The Office of the State Fire Marshal is investigating a fire from Sunday afternoon.

Bowers, who his colleagues defer to as master chef, talked about his beloved family farm and hunting on Saturday with medic Eric Bostian. Bostian hunted the Eastern Shore a few weeks back. The mosquitoes were intolerable. The cold front should help quell the pests, the two friends concluded.

After the master chef sprinkled spices on the mashed potatoes and the green bean casserole, it was time to set the table and sit down together at about 3:45 p.m.

The starch and greens were accompanied by hefty doses of ham, turkey, sausage stuffing and sauerkraut. Firefighters can eat.

“We’re not gonna eat until we say what we’re thankful for,” Hess told his unit. “It’s corny, but we’ve been doing it for five years.”

Some first responders were none too enthused, as they were ready to chow down after responding to a handful of calls and with the knowledge that they’d likely have many more.

“I’m thankful for the food and that I’m not on Shift A,” Halfer said, diving into his loaded plate.

Others gave thanks for the health of their families, their coworkers — the fact they can joke around behind the scenes while operating like a well-oiled machine when the bell sounds.