Thursday, October 31, 2013

Dousing the Flames


Gay firefighter earns respect from colleagues, and it’s mutual


Brian Cox, an openly gay man in the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department, was quick to point out he chose this profession not because he wanted to slide down poles or play with big hoses, as he put it.  It wasn’t because he knew life members of the fire department and they pushed him into it.  The Laurel resident bluntly admitted that he had a lot of free time with no real hobby that he enjoyed, so he figured it couldn’t hurt to check it out and see what it was about.

It took a while to be processed given the required paperwork and a physical exam, but on March 4 of this year Brian finally was voted in.  It wasn’t long before he received his Baptism by fire, so to speak. “I came up [on duty] the Wednesday after I got voted in and we had a big fire in the 100 block of Main St. in Laurel.  It ended up being an impressive two-alarm fire,” Brian said.  “Normally people that were as new as I was are expected to sit on the sidelines and just watch. I decided I couldn't and ended up pulling and racking hose, helping clean up and a few other things. I think that gained me a lot of respect starting out.”

He was not about to be idle.  If he was going to get into this, he wanted to make sure he did it all the way. “From that night on, after seeing the fire and everything that was happening on the fire ground I was hooked. I knew this was what I wanted to do.”

Since then Brian’s burning desire was to get through all the training and learn as much as he could as fast as he could.  He is attending EMT classes now with a lot to learn and should have his full fire training completed by this coming spring.

As much as Brian enjoys the excitement of being a firefighter, he also gets pleasure from the camaraderie that’s associated with it.  “I’m the type of person who likes to be around people,” Brian states. “The firehouse gives me that.” At his regular job performing IT Security work for the National Park Service, Brian sits in a cubicle all day at work, where the most human interaction he gets is calling someone out in the field.  

“I love working with people so this [firefighter work] is my release, my fun time, my time to decompress from work. The people at the firehouse are great and when riding on EMS calls, you get to talk with the patients, do some good for the community, and help them. It’s rewarding and an adrenaline rush especially when you are rolling down the road with the lights and sirens on.”
After only five months on the job at Station No. 10 in Laurel, Brian was nominated for and received the Member of the Month award. “That was a real boost,” he says. “I'm up there 2 to 3 days a week and sleep in for an overnight almost every Friday. I find myself being there for 24 to 36 hours at a time some days and it’s like it was nothing.”

Laurel Volunteer Fire Department Chief’s Award
When they aren’t running calls they train, wash the apparatus, and train again, and then eat, and then train more.  “It’s hard work; it’s not just a hang-out and we take it seriously. It’s really made me have more respect for our first responders, EMTs, and firefighters. You don’t realize all they do until you are one.”

As a gay man in an environment such as a firehouse, one would think there would be some sparks and concerns about fitting in. “That has been the most surprising part for me and I think for the other members as well,” Brian points out.  “It's been an educational experience, I'll admit.  I was under the impression that the fire department was a bunch of hard-ass guys that hung out there, worked out, and talked about fire all day. WRONG! It's a real family, dysfunctional and full of drama, but a family nonetheless.”

Brian made no attempt to conceal his sexual orientation. “They thought, walking in, that I was straight,” he explains. “I didn't hide it, and when asked if I had a girlfriend, I said no, I have a boyfriend. It took a couple people by surprise and I think I caused a few double-takes. I'm not flamboyant and I don't wear daisy dukes to the firehouse or whatever the gay stereotype is today. I think it was, for some, a little surprising that a gay guy could keep up. But when I proved myself and showed that I'm just like the other guys, it seemed like the gay thing went out the window. It's not an issue and no one seems to care.”
He still hears some conversations that may not be “politically correct” but that doesn’t bother him. “I could tell that people would change how they talked and what they said when I was in the room,” he notes with amusement. “People will call things ‘gay’ or say ‘that's so gay’ or other things... it's a firehouse, use your imagination.  I don't want people to think they say derogatory things—not at all—but terms people might use that might be politically incorrect were avoided and they would rephrase things when I'm around to make it politically correct. I didn't want them to change how they speak or how they talked just because I was there.”

Brian cites an example. “So one night on duty crew, I noticed it was happening again. Someone said something and immediately addressed me making sure I didn't take offense to it. I responded by telling them to ‘grow a pair and get over it.’  People are going to say what they are going to say and talk they way they are going to talk. I'm not going to be offended by firehouse talk. As soon as I said that I think about half the jaws dropped to the floor and a few started cracking up. I think I got through to them with that and since, it’s been like I’m just another guy.

 “I think I’ve also dispelled some rumors and misconceptions about the gay community along the way. The atmosphere is basically this: when you have to put your life on the line and you have to rely on the guy or girl next to you to get out alive, you don’t care who they love or what they do in the bedroom, you care that they are trained to do the job, and that they have your back when shit hits the fan.”

His boyfriend of two years, Daniel, has been very supportive of Brian and his new line of work. “He is always asking about what I'm doing and what I'm training on. He has been a major supporter and that has made being a volunteer easier. I have heard from a lot of guys that volunteering takes a lot of time, and it does. It can stress a relationship quite a bit and because Daniel has been so supportive, it's made being a volunteer easier since I do spend a lot of time up there.” [* See Postscript below*]
Brian’s efforts have paid off.  On October 12 at their annual banquet, he received the “Laurel Volunteer Fire Department Chief’s Award” in appreciation of his dedicated service, commitment and performance.

Brian Cox is enjoying his time at the fire department and finds it fulfilling to him as a person. “It's a great place and has been an eye opening experience. I have learned some life skills and built relationships that I hope will last and endure the test of time. It's like a second family and I'm proud to be a part of something so great.”


Daniel (l.) with Brian
Postscript: One week after this article was published in Baltimore OUTloud , Brian’s partner and the love of his life, Daniel Campbell, died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 33.  His obituary can be seen here.  

Unlike many families of gay couples as in the film Bridegroom, Brian partnered with Daniel's mother to make funeral and burial arrangements.  Brian's colleagues at the firehouse showed up at the service in full formal uniforms to pay their respect to Brian, family and friends.

R.I.P. Daniel, and Lord please give Brian the strength to pull through this.

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1 comment:

J. W. Loane said...

A very moving piece.