Brian Ficke doesn’t really know what first drew him to volunteer firefighting. Unlike many firefighters, he had no friends or family working for a department. He said one day 30 years ago, he drove by a volunteer fire department near the Exelon power plant he worked at and just decided to stop in and see what the organization was all about. That fateful decision led to decades of volunteer firefighting, several leadership positions, numerous awards, thousands of dollars in donations, and an unmeasurable number of lives affected by the dedication Brian has shown.
For the past 28 years, Brian has been with his current department, Prince Frederick Volunteer Fire Department, which services Calvert County, Maryland. He is currently a senior firefighter there, as well as a member of the leadership board of directors, but has over the years held the positions ranging from sergeant to fire chief. Through Exelon’s volunteer program, he received their 2018 Excellence Award along with a $20,000 grant for the fire department. The money will be used to fund a new computer-based training facility, one of the numerous innovations that Brian has helped to implement over the years to better the department.
While Brian says he is unsure if he wants to return to one of his previous leadership roles with the fire department, he said he knows he will always be a volunteer firefighter. On top of his work at Exelon, he spends four to five days a week at the fire department and answering calls. He downplays his dedication, however, saying the commitment he has to the fire department is “not hard to do when you love to help your community and have a passion to be there.”
For the undeniable mark he has left on Prince Frederick Volunteer Fire Department and the citizens of Calvert County, Brian is today’s Daily Point of Light Award recipient. Points of Light spoke with him to learn more about his time as a volunteer firefighter.
Describe your volunteer role with Prince Frederick Volunteer Fire Department, and what you’ve done to help innovate the department.
In 2019, I am currently just an active life member. It’s an official bylaws title, so just a senior firefighter but I have life membership status.
I started out just as a firefighter and then I throughout the years worked my way up the ranks to firefighter, to sergeant, all the way up to fire chief. How that happened, you take a series of classes and courses along the way, developing your skills and abilities and getting knowledge from running calls. As I developed in the volunteer world, I also developed my skills at my work company, which is Exelon Generation at the nuclear power plant. So a lot of it linked back and forth. A lot of the skills and abilities I learned here as being a business professional, kind of work in my favor [at the fire department]. At Exelon, training or programs and the way you manage meetings and stuff are, I guess, imbedded into you and become a part of your personality. So a lot of those traits are transferred to be of use to the fire department. When it comes to developing programs, it’s basically a project I would do here.
Some of those included training. Training is big in the nuclear world and training is a big thing at the fire department. We’re just looking for innovative ways to make that easier for folks to get that training. Folks come from home or they’re there sporadic times throughout the day, night, week and weekend. Then you have required training, stuff you have to do on an annual basis. It’s pretty hard for you or me as an instructor to get all 75 people at one time. It’s just not possible to all come to a mandatory training class, so you have to work through that and do something multiple times or have classroom sessions. It just becomes very difficult and some people fall through the cracks. So [we developed] a CBT, a computer based training program, for a lot of our re-certifications. It’s one of the processes we started. For the grant that we’re receiving from Exelon, we’re building a new firehouse and we’re going to be using money that was donated to the organization to basically build that computer lab so we can do annual things like EMT protocols, updates, drivers training refreshers, blood pathogens, all that stuff you have to check off on the box annually. We’re going to use that enhanced training room to do that. The big advantage is that we can track training. Guys can sign in with username and password. From a leadership role, when you want to go see who’s done and who’s not done, its very easy to track and you can just ping those guys you need to get trained versus having to schedule a class that fits them and fits your schedule. So that was a big one.
We had a very immature website when websites first came around, it just basically promoted the cause we run. …When we first did it, it was really just a social media site that let the public know when the firetruck ran down the road — ‘Oh, what was that fire? Let me see some pictures.’ And basically bragged on the fire department when we had a fire and that kind of thing. Well now we’ve taken it to the next level where everybody is getting their own individual emails, we have chat groups, we have members’ pages so we can post minutes and different expectations for the fire department, we have a fire prevention [page], a recruitment page, and one of the coolest parts is about fundraising efforts. We can now say if we’re having a crab feast or a concert or something like that, now you can order the tickets online right through our website versus trying to go to the firehouse or somebody bringing you tickets and that kind of thing. We worked to develop that website and it’s become a tool for us to use as versus just an advertisement to the public about what cause we’re running or what events are upcoming and that kind of thing. Taking it to the next level to really make it a resource tool to work both internally and externally with the department.
And just tons of things on a normal everyday basis. [I] helped developed a county hazmat team. There’s a joint hazmat team with the local law enforcement and the volunteers. I was in that program as a hazmat team leader and helped manage. All the stations have their own fire chiefs and we come to a meeting once a month called the chief’s council, so I facilitated that meeting as a chief council’s chairman for three years. Basically just lead that meeting, hold people accountable for actions, approving documents and decisions that had to go through the fire commission to the board of county commissioners, those kind of things. The normal every day-to-day operations of the fire department. So that’s all extra stuff, and you really have 75 men and women that are all volunteers that have their own vision and ideas of what’s best for the fire department, what’s best for them. You do a lot of that people resource stuff, discipline action, coaching, recognition, that kind of stuff, so a lot of that day-to-day administration stuff as well. And then just the series of routine to very traumatic fire rescue or EMS calls throughout the county and tri-county area.
What made you want to start volunteering?
I don’t really know. I came back from college and I was working at the power plant one day as a contractor and I drove by the local fire department and I just happened to stop in to see what that was about. I really didn’t know anybody that volunteered in there and I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I just had an urge to pull in and volunteer, and it’s really all it was. Quite simple. Where a lot of people get recruited with friends or family or different things, that wasn’t the case.
Can you describe the Exelon Awards?
All the corporation Exelons — I work at a nuclear fleet, but we also … have all these smaller companies that are in the Exelon network — and we submit our hours we donate every year to our volunteer organization into an electronic form. They collect our hours and then for a series of 10, 20 or 40 hours, you get rewarded a monetary value for your local organization that you choose, if they’re a 501(c), to get the money. I could say I did ten hours at the firehouse and when they say congratulations, your monetary award for a charity is $100, I can pick any 501(c) organization to donate that to, so I could say Humane Society, I could say United Way, I could say anything that’s registered to a 501(c) in Maryland to give that money to. We do that for a series of things and then at the end of the year, they said with my hours and stuff, … there’s an application for these higher-recognized volunteer awards for Exelon. I filled out that application, said if I won an award, what would I do with it … And I was awarded the top award of Exelon for volunteer of the year for the whole company in this region here, and I received $20,000 to donate to a charity of my choice. So I donated $20,000 in my name to the firehouse and like I said, we’re going to build our training room infrastructure with that money, the computer based programming training center.
How did you feel to win this award?
Very humbled. I was very shocked. I don’t look at what I do as that amazing, it’s just helping my community and it’s something I enjoy doing. I don’t look at it as a sacrifice even though people say, ‘You give up so much of your time, your family time and your personal life.’ I’ve jumped out of bed or I’ve not gotten a lot of sleep before coming up to work the next day, gotten up from the dinner table, left on holidays, different times when I’ve had a responsibility. I don’t look at it as a chore, which I think when you find the right volunteer thing, I think that’s what makes it easy and you can commit all those hours. I don’t know what I would be most proud of. I guess just being recognized throughout my years as a volunteer, being recognized from others within the fire department. I’m doing the right thing and I’m committed and dedicated, so I’ve won life saving awards, I’ve won chiefs awards, I’m in the Southern Maryland Fireman Hall of Fame, I’m in the Calvert County Hall of Fame, all of these different organizations, I’ve won the Governor of Maryland citation. So it’s pretty satisfying to know all the hard work and the accomplishments … but that’s not why we do it, we do it for the love of helping a community. I guess that’s the part in my reduced role that I miss the most, that I’m not interfacing necessarily as a head of the organization with local businesses or community members and stuff which is where I have a lot of relationships, developed a lot of friendships over the years.
When you first walked into the fire department to volunteer all those years ago, do you think you could have ever imagined being where you are now?
No, I didn’t know anything. The fire department has a tradition called brotherhood and a lot of the times, like if you talk about New York City or those big departments in a city, you have my uncle and my brother and my nephew and all that. I didn’t have any of that. Ironically, I lived in Saint Leonard [Maryland], which is a small community right next to the power plant, and that’s where I joined my first year, in the fall. I was there one more year and I moved on to Prince Frederick … But before I did leave, my dad had followed in my foot steps and actually joined that department. And so my first year in that first department, back in ’89, I joined … and won Rookie of the Year and in ’90, I won Firefighter of the Year. The same year at the podium, my dad won Rookie of the Year, so it’s kind of funny, it seems backwards.
So I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I didn’t realize, in Maryland, all the [training] courses are college-accredited courses. You can’t just jump on a firetruck and go in a burning building. There’s a certification that you have to earn through skills and tests, written tests and then physical tests of putting fires out. They have a whole program through the University of Maryland, it’s called the Fire and Rescue Institute. I had no idea what I was getting into. Then when you start to go to those courses and you start to like it, you realize if you want to get promoted or anything, there’s a series of classes you have to have to move on to the different levels. So as you start to get interested and realize this is something you might want to do or be considered for, you take more of those classes. And then a ton of our calls are EMS-related calls. When you’re young, you want to help, but you don’t know a lot. I didn’t know a lot other than the basic CPR and first aid. So then first you take an emergency medical technician, EMT class. Did I ever think I’d be riding in an ambulance? No, I didn’t really know that’s what I was getting into when I first started, that all that would be included. But it’s very rewarding and I’m better prepared for an emergency at home or in my community, and anywhere in the state of Maryland or when I’m on travel, to help people.
What are you most proud of related to your work with the fire department?
I would say the relationships that I’ve developed both internally with the fire house and externally with the public citizens within the local community. I know there’s people out there that when I’ve arrived or the fire department’s arrived, that we try to make the worst day of their life a little better. Nobody calls us unless it’s something serious and it’s probably a pretty big deal to them. So where I may see a dog stuck in the fence and not feel like it’s a big deal, to that family, it’s a huge deal. Several years ago a blind dog fell in a well that was way down so we arrived and had to do technical rescue to get the dog out of the well. It was a big call and made a big difference to that family. I remember some of those calls, and then there’s other ones that I don’t remember. One time I was in a local restaurant in the evening, probably four years ago. A teenage girl came up to me with her mom and said ‘Hi, do you remember me?’ And I really did not. She explained to me that her and her mom had pulled over and their vehicle was on fire, they called 911 and I arrived first and helped them get out of the car and helped them get away from the car. Not like I had to do the Hollywood rescue thing where I had to smash windows and drag them out as soon as I got there, but I don’t remember the call at all. She said ‘I just wanted to thank you for all your help that day’ when she was a young girl. And I don’t remember anything about that call and yet to that young girl, I touched her life. It’s those kind of things that make you want to help your neighbors and your local community.
What inspires you to donate so much of your time to the fire department?
This year I am not a chief officer. Since I’ve been in the fire department since probably the mid ‘90s, I’ve been moving through the ranks and I was branching to more and more responsibilities until last year. Last year, I had a small child and felt like it was time to take a step back. You know how you have a manager for so long, it just feels stale? Our mission is what it is, the ideas we’ve implemented are out there and it’s just time for a fresh set of eyes, a new voice. So I made a decision I was not going to run with my personal life, and I felt it was in the best interest of the fire department. But boy was I really shocked at how much I missed that role and responsibility. I often say that volunteering, you may say the organization or the charity I’m volunteering with really gets a lot out of me and they cherish me … but you don’t realize how much of an impact the volunteering does on you personally and internally. So now I’m taking a step back, I really struggle with not being in the role I am to volunteer as often, or have the responsibility to be there a lot, lot more than I am now. … It’s very gratifying and very rewarding to yourself and you don’t realize that it is until you walk away. It became part of my routine and then I was just like, I’ll walk away, take a step back, just go for calls and don’t have to get all these phone calls in the night about something broke or somebody hurt or somebody upset about something. Thinking it would be a great relief not have to do that, and yet it’s affected me in a negative way. I’ve been telling people now, once you start volunteering, you’ll get a lot more out of it than you’ll realize until you walk away.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
Everybody and anybody can volunteer and we all have the ability to help neighbors, friends, local communities and be a part of an organization that really, truly could use folks. … When you work full time and you go to volunteer, you bring a lot to the table that the organization can’t really develop. You think about all these people, and everybody has a different job and has different skills and abilities, and that local organization cannot develop those people professionally through the organization just as a matter of resourcing. If people recognize that if they volunteer, they’ll bring a lot of things that can help an organization. Look at firefighting, let’s say you want to join the fire department but you don’t want to do the fire, ‘I don’t want to go into a burning building and do all that stuff.’ There’s plenty of things people can bring to a volunteer organization that may not be their primary mission, but there’s so many roles and different things that people can do to help it. They just don’t realize it. If you think of the food bank and say, ‘I have to go door to door to collect cans’ — not necessarily. If that’s not your thing or you’re not going around collecting boxes, there’s just a ton of different responsibilities that they’ve got to do. Anybody, if you walk into an organization, there’s something you can do to help them. I just challenge everybody to find that volunteer organization that you feel like you want to help and once you get into it, I just know people will really enjoy it and find that passion to make a difference.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Brian? Click here for Good for local volunteer opportunities.