For Mark Bilger, deputy chief state fire marshal, fire service is a natural extension of family life. His parents are life members of the volunteer fire company in Hereford, where Bilger was reared on company fund-raisers and became a volunteer firefighter at 16.
Bilger, a Hampstead resident, recently took command of the Western Region office of the state fire marshal, and the 37-year-old can't imagine a job with more diversity and challenge.
"It's all I really ever wanted to do," Bilger said recently in Westminster before commuting to his Hagerstown office, which serves as a base for Allegany, Garrett and Washington counties.
In 1988, Bilger began working as a dispatcher for police and fire service in Baltimore County while pursuing the necessary fire science education and law enforcement training to become an assistant deputy state fire marshal in 1993.
His first assignment was in the Western Region, but he has served Carroll, Howard and Frederick counties for the past five years, working from the Metro Region office in Westminster.
Nancy, his wife of 10 years, works for the Carroll County Humane Society and is a part-time fire dispatcher.
Bilger is the second-youngest deputy chief in Maryland. Joe Flanagan in the Southern Region is 35, the youngest in the state.
Allen Gosnell, a spokesman for State Fire Marshal Rocco Gabriele, said of Bilger's promotion, "The new younger supervisors, such as Joe and Mark, are bringing in new ideas and management techniques, and that has to be good for the entire state fire marshal's office."
Bob Thomas, recently named chief deputy state fire marshal, praised Bilger's promotion.
"He'll bring enthusiasm to the position," Thomas said. "He cares deeply about his staff and fire service, our No. 1 customer. Mark's also extremely dedicated and very knowledgeable on the fire code and fire investigative protocol."
Bilger's new assignment - supervising five deputy fire marshals, an inspection engineer and an administrative aide - will offer new challenges, but he says the pace will be slower.
"We might handle 100 fire investigations a year in the Western Region, where Carroll County alone has 150 to 200 fire investigations each year," he said.
With the counties' growth will come additional inspection and educational duties.
The Office of the State Fire Marshal works closely with law enforcement agencies, fire officials and prosecutors, investigating suspicious fires to determine their origin and cause. It conducts interviews with witnesses to identify suspects and has arrest powers to charge suspects in arson or false-alarm cases.
Because of the rocky terrain in Western Maryland, Bilger said, he expects to handle more investigations involving blasting and the use of explosives.
And, in between investigations, he and his deputies will perform the necessary annual building inspections, visit schools to promote fire prevention, and respond to complaints about fire code violations.
Bilger has gained valuable field experience, solving or assisting in solving high-publicity incidents such as a 1996 multi-alarm blaze that destroyed Gill Gymnasium at Western Maryland College in Westminster, a 1997 apartment fire arson in Taneytown and last year's blaze that destroyed a portion of Main Street in Ellicott City.
"When a major fire occurs, everything else is put on hold for however long it takes to do the initial investigation," Bilger said. "Then it's back to doing interviews, inspections and school presentations until we're called to the next suspicious fire."