Sparks fly for first responders at Montgomery County Fire and Rescue

Relationships heat up at Maryland fire department (WTOP's Rachel Nania)

WASHINGTON — Megan and John Horrell’s first encounter wasn’t pulled from a Hollywood script. There was no meet-cute in a coffee shop, no run in at the park.

The two first responders crossed paths in 2005 at Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville, Maryland, while dropping off patients in need of emergency care. Some casual conversing and a few more chance encounters on the job led to a study session: John was a paramedic and Megan was training to be one.

“And then the studies just became a little bit more,” said John, who is now a lieutenant at Montgomery County Fire Station 32.

“A little bit more” meaning 10 years of marriage and three kids — plus careers as firefighters with Montgomery County Fire and Rescue. And where they work, that love story isn’t a unique one.

Pete Piringer, spokesman for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, estimates the department has a dozen, maybe more, married couples.

Something in the hydrant, perhaps?

“I guess it’s a whole ‘birds of the feather flock together’ type of thing,” said Susan Cleveland, who met her husband, Tommy, while working as a volunteer firefighter at Sandy Spring Station 40 in Olney, Maryland, in 1991.

On Feb. 6, the couple, now career firefighters at different stations, celebrated their 26th wedding anniversary.

“You tend to be attracted to people that are similar to you,” Susan added.

Susan Cleveland and her husband Tommy, both Montgomery County firefighters, just celebrated their 26th anniversary. (Courtesy Susan Cleveland)

Being in the same line of work — particularly one that involves responding to dangerous, often traumatic, situations — can help when it comes to unpacking or explaining an especially stressful day at the office.

“It’s nice to have somebody who we can talk to about what we do, who understands what we deal with every day,” Megan said.

“It’s easier to lean on each other for support,” John added.

Michele Ruth, a master firefighter and paramedic in Montgomery County, said the firehouse’s family-like environment helps to foster close relationships. At many stations, the staff on duty cooks and eats dinner together. Downtime in the evening is spent congregating in the living room around a TV or over a board game. The staff even sleeps together — to be clear, in separate, individual bunks.

“We spend 24 hours at the firehouse. It’s our other home, and so we connect with a lot of people that we work with as far as making lots of friendships and lifelong friendships,” said Michele, who married her husband, William, also a master firefighter, in 1998.

The two were at different stations, but worked the same shift and often ran calls together.

“It just so happens that this one grew more than just a friendship. We found we had a lot of good things in common, and we enjoyed each other’s company,” she added.

Marrying another firefighter isn’t always the stuff of fairy tales. For starters, the schedules are tough. Shifts are often 24 hours, and with kids at home, there’s not always time to catch up on sleep, laundry and the logistics of life.

Making time for each other can be even more of a challenge.

Then, there’s the whole danger side of it. The Horrells have their phones set to receive alerts when the one on duty is called out to a fire.

“There’s that other side of me that’s still a wife, who does still worry, because I do know the dangers; I do know what can happen on a call,” Megan said.

“Even as a firefighter, being a wife, I think, makes it a little bit tougher some days, knowing what he’s out there doing.”

For John, the worry is less on the physical dangers associated with the job, and more on the emotional pain that comes with it.

“We have a lot of people to support us, so the danger of the job, I don’t want to overshadow it, but that doesn’t bother me as much as getting mentally wrecked from something that we have to do or see,” he said.

“The mental side of it is pretty traumatic sometimes for people, and I know how [Megan] handles things, so that’s the side that worries me about calls.”

Even still, the Horrells say there’s a lot to love about being a firefighter — and finding friends that turn into family is one of the best parts.

“I don’t think you join this department or this job to find a spouse, and the fact that it happens — and it happens quite often — says something about the kind of people that are here,” John said.

“Ditto,” said Megan.

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