Howard County Fire Capt. Stephen M. Hardesty remembers his parents telling him as a young child that the first words he spoke were "fire engine."
For Lt. Joseph R. Ross, becoming an emergency medical services provider was following a family tradition of serving as career firefighters.
After years of service, Hardesty and Ross will be recognized as Career Firefighter and Career EMS Provider of the Year, respectively, by the American Legion - Department of Maryland. They are to receive their awards at the organization's annual convention tomorrow in Ocean City.
"I am proud that such an outstanding organization has also chosen to honor Captain Hardesty and Lieutenant Ross for their exceptional service to our community," County Executive Ken Ulman said in a statement. "I am pleased to have these two fine public safety professionals representing Howard County."
Hardesty grew up in Baltimore County, where he was part of the junior volunteer fire department as a child. When he turned 16, he began volunteering there, then took the test to become a firefighter before graduating from high school.
"From Cherry Hill, N.J., to North Carolina, everybody who was hiring, I took the test, and Howard County hired me first," said Hardesty, 39. "From a little kid, this is what I wanted to do."
Ross has been an EMS provider for 15 years, starting as a volunteer medic for the Anne Arundel County Fire Department. He went on to be a corpsman for the Marines for four years before joining Howard County Fire and Rescue Services in 2000.
Ross said that being a medical provider for the military greatly shaped his abilities.
"It's a different aspect of medicine," said Ross, 35. "You quickly learn how to diagnose patients and treat issues. You grow up pretty quick."
The American Legion competition was open to fire departments across the state and honors first responders who go beyond the call of duty.
The American Legion - Department of Maryland is a local community service organization of wartime veterans with more than 80,000 members, according to the group. This is the fifth consecutive year that a Howard County paramedic has received the EMS award, according to the county.
"Both these individuals represent the highest traditions of courage and excellence for public servants in the Department of Fire and Rescue and in Howard County," Fire Chief Joseph Herr said in a statement.
Hardesty's assignment is with the department's Special Operations Team. He has trained with the Department of Homeland Security in terrorism response and has earned a citation for his response to a water rescue in Lisbon in which a motorist was saved from a flood.
He was also part of a team of responders to travel to St. Bernard's Parish in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. Hardesty said that trip has had a lasting effect on him.
"When we showed up ... there was a Canadian flag flying," he said, refering to the fact that a team from Canada arrived first. "Loving this job as much as I do, that really tugged at me. Our system has failed these people if we show up and we see a Canadian flag. But it was good, being able to get down there and help those people out."
Ross is a certified emergency services instructor and teaches staff from the Fire Department and area hospitals Advanced Life Support programs.
Both men said they are excited to receive the awards, but more than anything, they are happy to be helping people.
"I'm actually pretty humbled to be recognized by such an organization," Hardesty said. "They've done so much for this county, and they're still giving back."
Hardesty said one of the most satisfying parts of his job is hearing the "thank-yous" on people's worst days.
"You can really tell they appreciate what we do, and I like that satisfaction," he said.
Ross said his wife, Katrina, his been his "pillar" and that without her support, he would have never made it this far.
"I feel pretty good," Ross said. "You make a difference in some way, some form. It doesn't have to be complex. Even though [the award] says 'EMS provider,' it actually encompasses my entire life almost."