Lt. Thomas Gerber didn't know what to make of the round of handshakes and congratulations that greeted him last month at the door for the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue awards ceremony.
Then he picked up a program and was "shocked" to discover that he had been named the Career Firefighter of the Year.
But to those who know him, there was nothing at all shocking about his winning the award.
"He's very dependable, solid as a rock," said Lt. Chris Alliger, who nominated Gerber for the award and called him "one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet."
The fire department is more than a career to him, it is a way of life. When he is not working his regular shifts, he is volunteering or serving the department in other ways. He teaches cardiopulmonary resuscitation to Howard County residents several times a week and is a member of the department's bike team, which is on-call at such events as Merriweather Post Pavilion concerts.
"Sometimes, I feel like all I do is work," he said.
A firefighter in the county for 11 years, Gerber was promoted to lieutenant in January.
Previously stationed at the Elkridge and Ellicott City fire stations, Gerber, 35, is now on "floating duty." As a new lieutenant in the department, he has no permanent station and fills in where he is needed, sometimes traveling to different stations during a 24-hour shift.
"I've worked at every firehouse in the last month," he said.
Gerber said he doesn't mind the juggling, though he is looking forward to gaining seniority and having a permanent station and shift.
Raised in Baltimore, Gerber said he always "wanted to work in the medical field." He worked in a pharmacy while in high school and said he "looked up to the pharmacists."
But Gerber wanted a career with mobility.
"I didn't want to be stuck in a hospital or doctor's office," he said.
With the help of a friend who was an Emergency Medical Technician, Gerber was introduced to the fire department through ride-alongs. He received his EMT training at Anne Arundel Community College and Baltimore City Community College, and shortly after receiving his EMT-paramedic certification, he was hired by Howard County.
A career with the fire department entails serving as both an EMT and a firefighter, which Gerber had to adjust to at first, but now enjoys. "It's definitely the best thing that's ever happened to me," he said of joining the department, adding that he does not know what his career would have been otherwise.
There are many within the department who are grateful for Gerber's choice, including Alliger, who was Gerber's supervisor at the Elkridge station.
Alliger, 36, of Bel Air, said Gerber was always on the move at the station - checking equipment, cooking for his co-workers or taking inventory. He never tired.
But Alliger added that there was also a fun side to match Gerber's diligence, saying that he was "one of the lead pranksters" in the station, keeping the firefighters on their toes with air horns in the bunkhouse at night and other tricks.
"You never wanted to turn your back on him," Alliger said. "You never knew what was coming."
Alliger said Gerber was also "a good example and a mentor" to new members, and that his presence at the station is missed.
"It's our loss and his gain," Alliger said. "Somebody like him doesn't come along every day."
Gerber's wife of four years, Jen, 30, said she doesn't mind her husband's busy schedule. Her father is a firefighter, and she "kind of knew what" she "was getting into."
But "sometimes it's nice to have a break," she said of the days Gerber is working. "When we have too many days off together, we're pulling our hair out."
Outside of the department, Gerber describes himself as a "family man," a title that will become more salient in mid-June, when the Gerbers are expecting their first child, a baby girl.
Gerber said he expects to be home more when that day comes, but his wife is not convinced.
"I mean, he loves the fire department," she said.