Bill Brehm knew something was up when Westminster Fire and Hose Co. Chief Jay Nusbaum came looking for the coat Mr. Brehm had burned in a fire last year shortly before the annual fire company banquet.
"I thought I was going to get it back, because they do give gag gifts," the 33-year-old paramedic and firefighter recalled. He'd been the butt of a gag gift before: a set of mounted fog lights he received after he tore the fog lights off an ambulance on a steep driveway.
But this year was different; Chief Nusbaum presented Mr. Brehm a framed summary of his activities and a plaque commemorating Mr. Brehm's selection as the Westminster company's Fireman of the Year.
It was the first time in a long time he'd been caught speechless, Mr. Brehm said.
Mr. Brehm, a paid paramedic in the Baltimore County Fire Department, fills his life with fire and rescue activities. He has part-time jobs as a dispatcher at the county Emergency Operations Center and as a paramedic with Hampstead and Sykesville-Freedom District volunteer fire companies.
He chairs the Westminster fire company's fire prevention committee and coordinates fire hall tours for Scout troops and school children. He spends time teaching children techniques like "stop, drop and roll" to extinguish fires in their clothing and how to practice EDITH -- Exit Drills In The Home -- in case of fire.
On tours, Mr. Brehm said, younger children like to see the lights and hear the sirens on engines and ambulances, and they all like to visit the hose tower where hoses are dried out after fires.
Mr. Brehm's work schedule is two days and two nights on duty, then four days off. On his days off, he usually stops at the Westminster fire hall at least long enough to have a cup of coffee and trade wisecracks with the guys.
"He's a great guy to work with. He's outgoing and does everything he can for us," Chief Nusbaum said. "He's . . . the one you can always depend on to do things."
Mr. Brehm is typical of the men and women who have enabled Carroll County to rely on volunteer fire and rescue services: lifelong resident, graduated from Westminster Senior High School in 1977, joined the fire company two years later at the urging of a friend and has been involved ever since.
"I don't get much home time," Mr. Brehm said. "My wife and kids, when Daddy runs out the door, they know Daddy's going out on a fire."
He went out on fires 227 times and on ambulance calls 179 times in 1992. That's not even close to his record of 300 fire calls and 485 ambulance calls in 1983, but still an average of more than one a day.
Mr. Brehm's wife, Susan, is a volunteer emergency medical technician at the Westminster fire company and an electrocardiographic technician at Good Samaritan Hospital in Baltimore. The couple has two sons, David, 11, and Ryan, 6.
Mr. Brehm worked as a carpenter after graduating from high school. When he joined the fire company, he found that he liked fighting fires but liked emergency rescue work even better -- enough to take the required training courses and make it his career.
"I'm lucky," he said. "I have a chance to do this, and I want to do as much of it as I can."