Black History Month - Anne Arundel's First African American Professional Fire Fighter
Black History Month
To celebrate Black History Month, we can look to our own community to find inspirational stories of trailblazers. This month, your local Anne Arundel County Professional Fire Fighters wish to honor their Brother Robert Bailey, the first African American Professional Fire Fighter in our county.
Becoming Anne Arundel County’s First African American Professional Fire Fighter
Ever humble, Robert says he “was just at the right place at the right time.” A hard worker since childhood, he started working for pay at eight years old pulling weeds out of flower beds in Mayo. Robert eventually got a position as a custodian at the Court House where he worked until the new Fire Department was built. One day, Robert was dispatched up to Millersville to clean the new Headquarters and get it ready for occupation. The position became permanent; Robert was now the custodian for the Fire Department Headquarters, given a county truck, and entrusted with picking up the Chief’s secretary, Mrs. Kennedy, and driving her to the office every morning.
Robert enjoyed watching the Fire Fighters train and would occasionally join in, scaling up the 5-story building and repelling down on ropes. He was a quick study and was urged by the Fire Department leadership to join Fire Academy Class #5.
Life as a Professional Fire Fighter
Upon graduation from the Fire Academy, Robert became a pump operator at Fire Company 32 in Linthicum. He enjoyed working all day, and there were always chores to be done at the Fire House. In between calls, he’d busy himself painting tools and washing the fire trucks. Robert firmly states that pump operator is the best job in the world. “The feeling when you get there in time, hoping to save a life, hoping to save a building and keep the fire from spreading. Now, that’s a good feeling.”
His favorite memories of life at the Fire House center around the kitchen. Robert enjoyed feeding his brothers, but not as much as they enjoyed chowing down on his creations! Some Fire Fighter favorites were spare ribs on the grill, spaghetti, and Robert’s signature strawberry shortcake - a double decker cake made with whipped cream. Robert laughingly tells the story of getting called to a two-alarm fire in Brooklyn. The BWI Fire Fighters came and filled in for them at station 32. When they got back to the Fire House, it was quickly discovered that BWI had taken the cake with them when they’d left!
“A Beautiful, Wonderful Ride”
Robert calls his time with the Department a “beautiful, wonderful ride.” He enjoys recalling the family atmosphere, where his Brothers always put each other first and someone was always willing to lend a helping hand. Robert loved going to work; he loved the routine and he loved all the Fire Fighters working together.
Twenty years ago, Robert came home from work and hopped in the shower. He heard a rumbling sound, so he threw on some clothes to check it out. Now, he could hear water running. He went down to his basement and saw that the wall had caved in! The next day, his shift and B shift from Station 32 showed up and cleaned up the mess and made all the repairs. One of the Fire Fighters, Doug Smith, was also a homebuilder. The team had all the debris carried out and the wall rebuilt that day! Another Fire Fighter from Robert’s shift, Craig Johnson, brought his backhoe and filled in the hole. The rest of the Fire Fighters and their families brought food and drinks for the guys working. Robert recalls this story, laughing. “Station 32 had all of the work done before the insurance inspector even showed up! He wasn’t too happy!”
Robert’s last call was a fire at Jessup Prison. The Battalion Chief told Robert to stay in the fire engine, no matter what happened. Robert, not one to sit idly by but not wanting to go against a direct order, got out of the engine and began cleaning the equipment, including the dirty facemasks. After the fire was put out, the Battalion Chief asked Robert why he had disobeyed his order. Robert said, “what if we get called to another fire on the way back? I can’t have my brothers going out without clean face masks.” A true testament to Robert’s legacy: always treat others how you’d like to be treated, and always treat each other as family.