Two Howard fire veterans retire after a combined 7 decades

Having just retired, himself last week, former Assistant Fire Chief, Mike Baker is on hand as Howard County Deputy Fire Chief Charles Sharpe greets waiting friends and colleagues while leaving work for the last time on Wednesday afternoon in Columbia.
Having just retired, himself last week, former Assistant Fire Chief, Mike Baker is on hand as Howard County Deputy Fire Chief Charles Sharpe greets waiting friends and colleagues while leaving work for the last time on Wednesday afternoon in Columbia. (Doug Kapustin, Baltimore Sun)

Charles Sharpe has hung around firehouses from the time he was 2, and he got his first taste of what firefighters do as a grade-schooler.

"I remember responding with my father to a barn fire, moving the animals out of the barn, moving the equipment out of the barn. There wasn't enough water to extinguish the barn fire, so it was a matter of moving the animals out," he said, recalling a ferocious blaze in the Lisbon community where his father was a volunteer firefighter.

He signed on as a volunteer with the Lisbon fire company while in high school, and he decided a few years later to make a career of fire and rescue work.

On Wednesday, Sharpe, 56, retired after 34 years on the job with Howard County's fire service, leaving as the department's deputy chief for operations, a position dealing largely with personnel and staffing.

And last week, Assistant Fire Chief for Logistics Michael Baker, 57, another official in the upper echelon of the department, retired after 37 years. He, too, started as a teenage volunteer, with the Glyndon company in Baltimore County, after a childhood of being "in awe" of the trucks next door to his family's home.

Both men say they pursued the job of their dreams, and that while awards over the years recognized their valor, rescue efforts and achievements, the true rewards come from the daily work of saving lives and helping people in their community.

Combined, the two boast more than seven decades of Howard County fire department service, joining when it was a fledgling department and helping to shape it and train the younger colleagues who are now stepping into leadership roles. The department has grown to more than 415 personnel.

"They are responsible for me," said Bill Anuszewski, who was taught by both men in the fire academy in 1990. Anuszewski is taking over Baker's job, a role that oversees communication, IT, building firehouses and supplying equipment.

Sharpe's message to him in his first days as a recruit stuck with him, he said: "You will pay attention to detail because your life depends on it." He can still hear Baker bringing home key points with the phrase "… and you can take that to the bank."

Both retirees say their behind-the-scenes teaching roles have been particularly fulfilling, as have their contributions to manuals that decades later remain the backbone of the department's firefighter training and everyday duties. Sharpe wrote the county's training workbook for hazardous materials, and Baker wrote the county's first emergency vehicle driver program.

Sharpe said that a favorite part of his job is training new firefighters. "It's an opportunity to work with firefighters who had no training and teach them the fire service craft and the method and techniques, and then to work side by side with them on firetrucks and see them do the job," he said.

Sharpe focused on special-operations work, which includes water rescues, trench collapses and rope rescue techniques. He studied methods of managing searches through the University of Maryland, Baltimore County 20 years ago and has returned annually since then to help run the three-day exercise for the course.

"And I will again this year," he said.

He said the training "truly proved to be of tremendous value" when he was a search manager with a task force that responded to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

A particularly terrifying nighttime incident came in 1995, when a fire made it impossible for hysterical parents to reach a child they thought was trapped in the lower level of their East Columbia home. Sharpe was one of the firefighters who searched for the child in the heat and smoke.

"It was a pretty intense fire," Sharpe recalled. "It was more significant than we thought," he said. As it turned out, the child had gotten out earlier, but nobody knew. Sharpe received an award for his efforts.

Baker, who started as a recruit on a Friday morning and was married that same night, said the changes in equipment during his career still amaze him.

"The biggest thing is the technology changing," he said.

Firefighters used to draw their own maps and keep updating them, but now mobile data terminals show buildings, the closest water supply and other locations. Other computers alert truck crews on the positioning of their ladders, warning them if the angle is off or the ladder is getting too close to a structure.

Baker said that while serving in the Elkridge fire station in the mid-1980s, he was on a unit responding to a semiconscious man whose heart was fluttering with irregular beats, barely clinging to life. Doctors told rescuers to break protocols about not using a defibrillator on a conscious patient and instead to deliver an immediate jolt of electricity.

"I said, 'You got to be kidding me,'" Baker recalled. The response was just as surprising as the doctors' orders. "The body jumped, and he said, 'Man, I feel better!' And I am thinking, 'How can you feel better when you just got shocked?'"

He received an award for that.

Both men have children in emergency services.

Sharpe's son, Michael, is a Howard fire captain, and his son, David, is a county police officer. The three have found themselves at the same emergency scenes in their different roles, keenly aware of each other, but not working as a team.

Baker's son, Rob Roy, is a dispatcher for the county police.

"We have a family joke that my son is always telling me where to go," Baker said.