Joe McPhail vividly recalls the heroic actions of first responders on Sept. 11, 2001, when he was a third-grader. That defining moment in American history sent McPhail on his own path to service with the Navy and as a volunteer firefighter with the Odenton (Md.) Volunteer Fire Co.
“It opened my eyes to what fire service really is,” McPhail recalled. “A lot of those guys weren't even on shift. They were coming in to help those in need. That's kind of what I wanted to do. I don't do it for recognition, for the reward. I do it to help those in need. I like helping people, and this is a great way to do it. You see some people's darkest days, and you're there, whether it’s noon or two o'clock in the morning, with barely any sleep. You're answering the call.”
McPhail, a petty officer second class, was selected as the Navy’s recipient of The American Legion’s Spirit of Service award in 2019. He was honored on stage at the 101st National Convention in Indianapolis in August.
A member of American Legion Post 40 in Glen Burnie, Md., McPhail expressed his appreciation for the award and for the organization. “If it wasn't for The American Legion, we would barely be able to function, honestly,” he said. “A lot of vets wouldn't be able to get the help they need.
“The military is a big brotherhood/sisterhood. I feel like the camaraderie in the fire service is a little bigger. If one of my buddies has a predicament where he can't get himself out, I have no problem going in to a burning building to save that person. Same thing, if I were in a predicament or I need extra resources, or I was low on air, or I was in a serious situation where I could potentially die, I know that there's a bunch of guys going to come get me, and they have no problem doing it. It's kind of a one for all, and all for one mentality. Everyone has each other's backs.”
Growing up in California and Colorado, McPhail credits his father and grandfather, a Vietnam veteran, with molding him.
“They've built me into the man I am,” he said. “Showed me what hard work and dedication does. I kind of grew up in a military lifestyle of be on time, be where you're supposed to be, and work hard. It pays off. My grandfather is my biggest inspiration. Grew up just like him. And my dad is one of the most hard working men I've ever met. I owe it all to him.”
It did not take long for McPhail to win over Mark Telfer, a retired Navy senior chief and assistant chief at Odenton Volunteer Fire Co.
“When Joe came in I was impressed that he was an instructor at the Naval Academy,” Telfer said. “He had been on aircraft carriers; hydraulic engineering is his passion. Most sailors are already firefighters to begin with. He took one class after another and always did excellent in the classes. He was really squared away; you don’t get a job at the Naval Academy if you are not squared away.”
The fire station handles about 6,000 calls a year, the vast majority of which are medical. Calls include quelling house fires to applying CPR to cutting people out of cars.
McPhail is “a cool character under pressure,” Telfer said, noting that volunteers commit to one 12-hour overnight shift each week at the station.
“We generally see people at their worst moments,” Telfer said. “His ability to comfort patients, or in the case of children, to comfort their parents, is great. He is a leader when I am not there. He runs the crew. He rides the seat and makes the calls. It is not an easy job but he has taken to it and embraced responsibilities. He is a quality guy. We’re fortunate to have a military guy like him who can take control of some of the younger volunteers.”
During a recent visit to the Odenton fire station, McPhail responded to an accident where a 13-year-old lost control of his bicycle going downhill and crashed into a parked vehicle. The boy’s prognosis was good but his father was concerned.
“Telling his dad that his kid's a trooper brightened his day a little bit,” said McPhail, who has been a volunteer firefighter for several years. “It's never good to see your son or daughter laying there bleeding. But taking a couple of seconds out of your day to say, ‘Hey, know that your son or daughter is a trooper, doing a great job,’ it brightens their day. A lot of us don't do it for the recognition, we just do it because it's fun.”
Later during the shift, volunteers turned their attention to that evening’s training session. McPhail served as a mentor to lesser-experienced volunteers, a role he excels in.
“Being a Navy Academy instructor kind of puts me in the spotlight of doing training on Thursday nights,” he said. “I generally have to pick out what we're going to do. Being an instructor, I know how to teach people in different ways, more hands on, or find out what motivates them better.”
Whether it’s a training drill, motor vehicle accident or house fire, Telfer has complete confidence in McPhail.
“As the smoke gets thicker, your blood pressure gets elevated and your anxiety rises and you can’t see as much but you have to get to the fire,” Telfer explained. “Once you get water on the fire, you get additional heat, which creates steam, I’ve never seen Joe say no. He’s always moving forward. It’s a credit to his training. He believes in his training and gear and passing that on to the newbies.”
For McPhail, his commitment to service is continuing.
“I don't see myself stopping being a volunteer firefighter any time soon,” he said. “It's a lot of fun, and it's never work. It's coming to the firehouse, hanging out with a great group of guys, and just building memories.”