Mark Falkenhan, a Middle River man who served as a volunteer firefighter in Lutherville, died Wednesday while on the scene of a four-alarm blaze in Hillendale. The following is a tribute from Bruce Goldfarb, editor of Arbutus Patch and a former EMT/firefighter with the West Memphis, Arkansas, Fire Department.
I never met Mark Falkenhan. But I know a lot of people like him – people who invest their time and energy in service to their community.
When something terrible happens – a fire or accident – the natural reaction is to run away, to stay out of harm’s way. It takes a particular mindset to overcome the panic reflex and run toward a catastrophe. It takes confidence and presence of mind.
Few things in life are certain. Marriages come and go, cars break down, sports teams carrying the hopes and dreams of a city sometimes lose playoff games. But one eternal truth that everybody knows is that if you call 9-1-1, they will come.
If you are stricken with a heart attack, or a grease fire breaks out on the stove, they will come.
If it’s in the middle of the night, they will come.
There is never a question of your ability to pay. Fire makes no distinctions based on race or economic status. Regardless of whether you are rich or poor, saint or sinner, every person is treated by the fire department with the same respect, dignity and professionalism.
Back in the early days of this area’s settlement, in the 18th century, fire departments were privately owned organizations. You had to pay an annual fee to subscribe to the fire department, and they would only put out the fires for paid members.
As people lived more densely in urban areas, the flaw in the policy became apparent; if the house fire of a non-subscriber’s house isn’t extinguished, it will catch the subscriber’s home next door on fire. They realized that it’s in everybody’s self-interest if all blazes were put out by the fire department.
Fire departments became a public service – something we’ve taken for granted ever since. It’s things like fire service, police, and emergency medical services that allow us to coexist as a community. It's people like Falkenhan that make our lives possible.
If you live in Baltimore County and are involved in a car accident or have a house fire, chances are that the people who respond are volunteers. As with vast parts of the country – in places outside of cities able to support a paid fire service – most of Baltimore County is served by 33 volunteer fire departments.
There is often a distinction made among fire departments, with some designated as volunteer and the others known as career, professional or paid fire departments. But it’s a distinction without a difference. Regardless of whether he or she is on a payroll, volunteer and career firefighters undergo the same training, do the same things, and take the same risks responding to every call.
The distinction isn’t that one is paid and one is not – it’s that for one person, fire service is a full-time job, and for the other person fire service is something that’s done in addition to a full-time job, family, school, and all the obligations that fill our days.
While we spend a lazy evening munching popcorn and watching American Idol, the volunteer firefighter is being trained with a new piece of equipment, brushing up on CPR skills, studying for a test to operate the pumpers, rolling up hose to stack in the dryer, or is occupied with the firehouse tradition of polishing the trucks and equipment to a spotless gleam with chamois cloths.
While we peacefully slumber between the covers, they respond to the clarion call, shake the sleep from their head and don the turnout gear and boots once more, head out the door once again for whatever crises needs calm and clear-head action.
What would we do without people like Mark Falkenhan?
According to reports, Falkenhan is the first Baltimore County firefighter to die in the line of duty in 20 years – a remarkable record that testifies to the level of training, skill and competence of county fire departments.
There are risks every time a firefighter walks into a burning building. The men and women who volunteer at our fire departments are acutely aware of this fact.
Training and equipment help reduce those risks, but can never eliminate them. Firefighting will never be a safe activity.
Every time the alarm rings and a firefighter slips on that heavy turnout gear and boots, the thought must go through his or her mind ever so briefly while mentally preparing for the tasks ahead: Did I tell my wife that I love her? Have I hugged my children today? Is my life complete?
Are any of us ever ready for that day?
Mark Falkenhan was 43 years old. He was a husband and father to two sons, ages 5 and 14.
He was a member of the Lutherville Volunteer Fire Department and was formerly chief of the Middle River Volunteer Ambulance Rescue Company. He was retired from the Baltimore County Fire Department and had been working for the Secret Service in addition to teaching at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute.
According to the Baltimore County Volunteer Firemen’s Association, Falkenhan was overcome in a flashover.
The death of Mark Falkenhan is a tragic loss not only for his family and members of volunteer and career fire departments, but a loss to every one of us who took his service for granted.
Every person in Baltimore County owes Mark Falkenhan, his family, and all of the men and women who wait for the alarm and put on that heavy turnout gear and boots, a debt of gratitude that can never be paid in full.