The Ott House Pub: The kitchen table for America’s firefighters
It’s the NFA-adjacent pub where firefighters feel like family
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In Emmitsburg, Maryland, firefighters from all over the country converge for weeks at a time to attend classes at the National Fire Academy. In the classroom, they learn incident command, personnel management, executive-level leadership, among many other topics.
The level of instruction is superb, and the beauty of the campus is unmatched. But there’s a hidden gem – another critical spot in firefighter development – that happens a short walk from the campus. It’s where the nation’s firefighters meet over food to share their stories, their mistakes and their jokes – a little corner bar and restaurant that recently celebrated its 50th year: The Ott House Pub.
A true family business
Spending an evening at the Ott House feels like hanging out in someone’s house, because in a way, you are. Owned and operated by brother and sister team, Susan Glass and Bobby Ott, the Ott House was opened by their father in 1970. Ever since, most of the staff has been a member of the family. And everyone, related or not, pitches in to make their guests feel at home.
Even when I got the chance to talk to Susan for a little while, her eyes constantly scanned the room for customers in need. If the rest of the staff was tied up, she’d politely say, “excuse me,” step over to fill a glass or cash out a check. When she was done, she’d come back and pick up the story right where she left off.
Susan would have made an excellent battalion chief because it was obvious that she was skilled at staying calm amid chaos.
It's not decor, they’re signs of respect
Susan shared that around the same time the National Fire Academy opened in 1985, a couple of visiting firefighters were in the bar begging Bobby to let them hang their department patch on the wall. Bobby and Susan talked about it, but they were worried about what their father would say. After all, their father was very particular as to what got placed on the walls.
So Bobby and Susan came up with a plan. They decided to let the firefighters hang their patch, then after they had gone back to campus, Bobby would take it down before their father saw it. But he didn’t get the chance to take it down. The senior Ott walked in earlier than normal that day and saw the patch on the wall. To everyone’s surprise, he said he liked it.
From there, the tradition was born. Over the years, firefighters from over 400 departments have left their patch at Ott House. But some have gone further than that, building decorative cases to display challenge coins or bringing custom fire helmets as gifts to the Ott family.
This tradition is what sets the Ott House apart from restaurants with a firefighter theme. What you see on the walls is not decor. They are signs of respect. And Susan, Bobby and all of those who make the Ott House special have gotten them the same way we did – they earned them.
Pulling through their 50th year
2020 marked the Ott House’s 50th year. But, like the rest of America, their plans to celebrate took a backseat to the pandemic. Going into survival mode, Susan said, they changed their business model from a dine-in restaurant into a take-out deli. It wasn’t easy, but thanks to local support, they made it through.
Now, as firefighters have slowly started to return to the National Fire Academy, the plexiglass partitions have come down and patches are starting to go back up – and visiting firefighters once again have a place to feel at home.
Firefighters and families
In June 2021, I had the opportunity to return to Emmitsburg for a class in Command and Control of Multi-Alarm Incidents. After each long day struggling through scenarios, our class – which included firefighters from Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Philadelphia, Kentucky and more – was greeted with smiles when we walked into the Ott House during the dinner time rush and asked for a table big enough for us all.
Rather than treat us like a burden or ask that we break into smaller groups, staff came out from behind the counter and cracked jokes with us as we waited for tables to be arranged so we could all sit together.
It was a reminder of what makes the Ott House so special to us. The owners and staff understand our desire to stick together because it's a code that the Ott’s have stood by for years.
It’s just what firefighters and families do.
My Ott House Pub memories
‘We are always there for each other’: Reflecting on the lifelong friendships formed at the NFA-adjacent pub