Mitch Kuykendall wasn't thinking about the shrinking federal budget or the latest partisan squabbles on Capitol Hill when he climbed a ladder propped up against a burning apartment building in Maryland City last July.
He was, he said, just doing his job for the federal government.
The federal firefighter and his colleagues, who are based at Fort Meade, were recognized with hundreds of other government workers at an event in Baltimore County this month tied to Public Service Recognition Week.
Kuykendall and his colleagues rescued three people, including an infant, from the three-story apartment building last summer. Kuykendall brought one of the victims, a man trapped on a second-floor balcony, down the ladder to safety.
The workers at Engine 451 and 452 won an award for "group heroic act."
"It's nice to be recognized, but in a way I just feel like it's my job. They pay me to do it," said Kuykendall, 29, a former firefighter in the Air Force who lives on the base he also protects.
"We didn't show up and rescue that guy for free, so it's kind of hard to take too much credit."
More than 300 awards were given to employees in 20 different categories at the annual Baltimore Federal Executive Board event, from "outstanding supervisor" to "rookie of the year."
President John F. Kennedy created executive boards across the country in 1961 to improve coordination among federal field agencies.
Public Service Recognition Week has been marked during the first week of May since 1985.
This year, though, the ceremony recognized achievements that took place during a particularly difficult time for the federal workforce, with the deep budget cuts known as sequestration that started last spring, widespread furloughs, an extended pay freeze and a 16-day government shutdown in October, the first in nearly two decades.
Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger told some 850 federal workers that they had been walking around with a bull's eye on their backs for several years.
"We are still the best and most powerful country in the world," the Baltimore County Democrat said in a statement after the ceremony. "One reason is our federal workforce."
Maryland is home to more than 300,000 federal workers, one of the highest concentrations in the country.
Some of the accolades handed out Friday went to recipients who were directly confronting the budget challenges the workforce faced in 2013. An Army team at Aberdeen Proving Ground, for instance, won an "outstanding administrative work" award for developing and implementing an overtime policy for the Army's Test and Evaluation Command during sequestration.
But most went to people who were performing above average despite the steady flow of bad news — and sometimes criticism — coming out of Washington.
The Fort Meade firefighters are in place primarily to protect service members and their families on the sprawling military installation in Anne Arundel County. But through mutual aid agreements, the crews are frequently called to respond to fires off base.
About 70 firefighters were called to the Ashley Apartments fire last year, according to press reports at the time. Kuykendall said the incident was unusual because rescue operations tend to take place at night, not the middle of the day.
"All of our guys are going above and beyond," said Keith Stumpf, a firefighter at Fort Meade who is also president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Fort Meade, Local F-281. "As family, we're proud of the guys."