Tuesday morning felt different at the Kentland Volunteer Fire Department. And it felt exactly the same.
Fitzy, the beefy 23-year-old at the morning grill, was making pork roll, scrapple and bacon instead of just one item. The big-screen TV in the main room was on as usual, but it was playing a 24-hour loop of “A Christmas Story.”
And although the central Prince George’s County streets outside were quiet, the 10 men inside were braced for typical holiday eruptions — domestic and otherwise.
Company 33 had already performed a regular equipment check and rolled out to a fire and four accidents by breakfast on Christmas Day. Inside, an impromptu wrestling match had already spilled into the truck bay, someone had been playfully teased about his lisp and the Redskins had been analyzed and reanalyzed.
For Company 33’s unpaid Christmas crew, the Landover firehouse was the obvious place to be on a day when families sit together. Most of them live in the firehouse when not at their paid jobs as bouncers, musicians, security guards and Marines. Many began volunteering before they had a driver’s license.
The firehouse is a lifestyle.
“This is a brotherhood — it means so much to me. This is where I want to be,” said Jason Yates, 33, who is also a paid firefighter in Baltimore County. He has spent holidays at a firehouse since he was 16, and his family has come to expect it. Other firefighters’ families are similar: Relatives drop by the firehouse on Christmas, and presents from out of town are shipped there.
The firehouse on Landover Road was also a place to empathize on Tuesday, a day after a deadly shooting ambush in Upstate New York left two firefighters dead. In a firehouse, barreling into unfamiliar buildings — and trusting that you are welcome there — is routine.
“Even today, with [the shooting] being so fresh, I’m just thinking: ‘If it’s on fire, I’ll put it out.’ Anything else is not on my mind,” said Will Patelis, 23, who grew up in New Jersey. “You get used to it, or you get out.”
For a certain kind of firefighter, Kentland is legendary. It has a reputation for being tight, efficient and busy — particularly for an all-volunteer outfit. Its Web site gets 60,000 hits a day, and buffs follow its two Twitter accounts and Facebook page, which include routine updates and such goodies as the photo of a cranky, slightly drunk Santa who was extricated from a flipped taxi on the side of the Capital Beltway last weekend.
Seemingly every other inch of the firehouse is decorated with mementos, like plaques and T-shirts with such macho slogans as “We finish what others can’t” and “Go tough or go home” — or photos of memorable blazes. The firefighters, too, are decorated, with tattoos of “Kentland” common among those who have been around long enough to earn them.
The district Kentland serves includes rough areas and many needy families. On Tuesday, in between calls for a car that swerved into a highway embankment and smoke in an apartment building, a Kentland engine headed to a small complex with a sack of toys.
The driver, Michael Freeman, a 37-year-old D.C. firefighter, wore an elf hat. Patelis wore a New York Giants Santa hat. A mother, at first afraid to answer the knock on her window, silently cried as four burly men presented her 3-year-old son with trucks and puzzles.
They do not give each other gifts — a few joked about being “grown men” who didn’t need them — and the only gifts under the tree were a pack of bones and some biscuits for Murphy, the firehouse’s golden retriever.
But many Kentland firefighters said they see working on Christmas as a gift to themselves: Most are single and their families are far away.
Firefighter Billy Anderson, a 24-year-old Texan who is Jewish, works full time as a Loudoun County emergency management specialist. Ironically, perhaps, he was given the task of preparing a ham for the firehouse dinner. Like many at Kentland, his blood relations are far away.
After all, Tuesday wasn’t that different of a day.
“I am with my family,” he said.