'It wasn't just about the lights and sirens for him': Md. firefighters reflect on fallen brother

Frederick County firefighters gathered to tell the story of Joshua Laird, posthumously promoted to battalion chief

A public viewing for fallen Battalion Chief Joshua Laird will be held, Monday, Aug. 16, 2-8 p.m., at the Mount Saint Mary’s University PNC Sports Complex in Emmitsburg, Md. A Masonic service will take place at 7 p.m.

The funeral service will be held Tuesday, Aug. 17, at 1 p.m., at the Mount Saint Mary’s University PNC Sports Complex. There will not be a graveside service following the funeral.

The event will be broadcast on livestream.com.

Mary Grace Keller
The Frederick News-Post, Md.

FREDERICK COUNTY, Md. — When the next class of rookies enters the Frederick County fire and rescue service, there's a good chance they'll hear the story of Battalion Chief Joshua Laird.

Laird, 46, died Wednesday from injuries he sustained battling a two-alarm house fire in Ijamsville. He was posthumously promoted from captain to battalion chief Friday, effective July 31, 2021.

A few firefighters who worked with Laird gathered Friday afternoon at Urbana Volunteer Fire and Rescue — its station's façade draped with black cloth — to tell their brother's story.

In recalling Laird's early days in the fire service, Brunswick volunteer Deputy Fire Chief Steve Shook recounted the way Laird showed promise in his first year at Green Valley Fire Station 21 years ago. He was good at the job, but he'd still ask Shook how he did.

"Whatever the job was, he would do it," Shook said.

Like others in the Frederick County fire service, Laird referred to Shook as "dad." Shook's been in the fire service since 1973 and retired from the county after 35 years. Though the deputy chief can remember firefighters who died in the line of duty from heart attacks, he couldn't recall an instance like Laird's, who died after falling through the floor of a house in the 9500 block of Ball Road. The fire and Laird's death are under investigation.

In 2013, Laird was among the firefighters who offered a comforting ear to Shook when his 19-year-old son, Matthew, died after a car crash.

Shook's eyes welled with tears as he recalled the day. Laird's death adds to his grief.

"I know what the brotherhood's going through," Shook said.

He recommends those struggling with the loss speak up and get help if they need it.

A humorous spirit

Junior Fire Company Capt. Chris Dimopoulos can tell you how Laird was the voice of reason and calm when their 2007 class of young, new firefighters was raring to go out on calls. But he'd also tell you about the pranks they played, and how Laird was usually behind them. He might even chat about the lizard tattoo on Laird's calf and how no one seemed to know the real story behind it.

"Josh was a big jokester," Dimopoulos said.

One night after class, a young Dimopoulos returned to the station to find his bunk in the engine bay and his belongings on the roof. Laird wouldn't take credit, but Dimopoulos swears the senior firefighter was behind every shenanigan.

Even with a mischievous sense of humor, Laird was serious about his work ethic and helping others on their way up, a few firefighters said. Many called him a mentor.

Laird chipped away at the tough exterior the rookies tried to put on, Dimopoulos said, and dragged them to the local elementary school to read to kindergarteners — which they ended up enjoying immensely.

When Dimopoulos became a captain, he knew Laird was someone he could call to compare notes with or to ask advice.

"It wasn't just about the lights and sirens for him," Dimopoulos said, he cared about people.

A public servant

That sense of community and the desire to give back translated to Laird's life in Adams County, Pennsylvania, where he resided with his wife and two daughters.

He served on the Fairfield Area School Board for four years and was active in the Adams County Democratic Committee.

Marcia Wilson, chair of the committee, said he played an "integral" role and was a steadfast, dependable volunteer. He'd transport whatever supplies were needed and was known to pick up litter on the side of the road.

When school board elections came around, the Gettysburg Times in May 2019 published a candidate Q&A featuring Laird. They asked, "What makes you the best candidate?"

His response read, in part, "An honest concern for the well-being of every member of this great community. This is the storied community where neighbors help each other, even if we see the world differently. This is by far the best community I have ever lived in, and I feel an obligation to make it better."

Also in the candidate profile, Laird described his desire to put students first. His volunteer work included helping out at community events, the local elementary school, Gettysburg Community Theatre and assisting in recreation league sports.

Adams County Commissioner Marty Qually told the News-Post Laird was passionate about his beliefs. The two were friends through politics and through Laird's wife, Sara.

"One thing he couldn't stand were lazy elected officials," Qually wrote. "I pitied every official who thought they could pull one over on him or sidestep a question. It just made him more engaged and more fired up. I will miss his passion, but also know he and Sara instilled that passion in their daughters. Those two will carry his legacy, and I know they will do great things because of their father."

LaShay Kalathas served on the school board with Laird. She's also close friends with his wife, and her daughters are friends with the Laird children.

"Josh was the kind of guy that did his duties as a member of the board with everyone in mind, whether it be the students, teachers or community members," Kalathas said in an interview, speaking through tears. "He was a very loving husband and father ... you couldn't find a more caring and proud father. And then also, he was also willing to help others with their kids as well."

Kalathas hopes Laird is remembered for being a kind and caring person.

"Josh is not only a hero to the fire company," she said. "He was a hero to his family, his neighbors and the community."

Friendships forged

Laird was known for keeping in touch with people he used to work with, even when employees' shifts or stations changed.

Carroll Manor firefighter Kevin Shockney knew Laird since 2006. He worked under him just briefly at Green Valley, but they stayed in touch. Up until the COVID-19 pandemic started, a few of them would meet every third Friday around Gettysburg for drinks, which Laird planned to fit Shockney's work schedule.

"He enjoyed having his girls come out with us sometimes," Shockney said, noting it was always at a kid-friendly establishment. "He was a good dad to his girls."

Around the firehouse, it wasn't uncommon to see Laird with his headphones on and a metal detector in hand. According to Shockney, he'd get a kick out of any little item he found, even if it was a penny. He liked ghost hunting, too — a popular activity with tourists in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, not far from where Laird lived.

When the guys went golfing, Laird was liable to kick your ball or unclip your bag from the golf cart. That was his sense of humor, Shockney said.

But above all, Shockney said Laird was a good friend.

In the time that's passed since Laird's death, James Matthew Friend, a technician paramedic with Middletown, said the warmth Laird exhibited keeps popping up in conversation.

Fire and rescue folks can be a little gruff and unapproachable at times, Friend said, but Laird wasn't like that.

"He was unbelievably warm. That is a characteristic that is not too common," Friend said. "I believe sometimes a lot of individuals in this profession believe that they have to wear, I'll say, a coat of armor ... He never had that."

In fact, Laird was more likely to greet you with a hug, Friend said.

As a supervisor, Laird took on tasks others might have delegated. On a medical call in New Market years ago, Friend and Laird came upon a patient who suffered an open fracture. Laird bandaged the wound, applied a splint and calmed the patient. Friend was impressed by that show of leadership.

It's stories like these that Friend expects they'll continue to tell at fire stations across the county in the days, weeks and years ahead.

"This is not the first line of duty death that I've experienced," Friend said. "There's never a defined period of when a new normal will emerge. The scar will always be present. ... He'll still be at the coffee table with us, he'll still be drilling with us and training with us and running the calls with us. That's never gonna change."


(c)2021 The Frederick News-Post (Frederick, Md.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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