Brenden Donais has several relatives who are firefighters, but now he has a leg up on them after the Potomac Heights Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad volunteer firefighter was recently named this year’s Maryland rookie of the year.
“I’m very excited,” said Donais, who is a 2020 Lackey High School graduate. “It’s a big award [from] the whole state of Maryland. It’s pretty exciting being nominated and picked over everyone.”
The 18-year-old Indian Head resident found out he’d been selected to win the award — officially called The Past President C. Oscar Baker Maryland State Firemen’s Association Rookie of the Year — while watching the virtual annual Maryland State Firemen’s Association Conference earlier this year at the station house.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I got it,’” Donais said. “I had no idea at all [I was even nominated].”
Donais’ family tree is full of firefighters, including his father Timmy (Accokeek and Potomac Heights VFD), mother Melissa (Accokeek VFD, current Prince George’s County firefighter), grandmother Darlene Grimsley (Accokeek VFD), grandfather Mike Grimsley (retired D.C. firefighter) and grandfather Bob Hepner (retired Prince George’s County firefighter).
His great-great grandparents, Lois and Billy Underwood, were members of Accokeek VFD and his great-great-great grandfather, Clarence ‘Bill’ Stauffer, was chief at Bolling Air Force Base (now Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling) and chief of Branchville VFD in College Park.
“I hadn’t thought of any other career since I was born,” Donais said. “I saw [what it was like] and I fell in love with [everything]. Just the adrenaline like when you get to a house fire and put it out. It’s the best feeling.”
He added that his family members tell him to “keep your head up and always be willing to learn something.”
Donais said the adrenaline starts pumping when the alarm sounds “and you don’t think of anything but that, and then you just go and do [your job]. Firefighting is one of the most dangerous jobs you can do, so if someone goes down you have to have [good teamwork] to get them out.”
He added the key to being a good firefighter is to “never get it in your mindset that you know everything... As a firefighter you can never know too much. Just go in, keep your ears open, mouth closed and do your job.”
Donais, who works full-time as a landscaper, said he thinks he still has a lot to learn.
“I wouldn’t even really say I’m a good firefighter,” he said. “Nobody ever calls themselves a good firefighter. Other people put us at that standard, but we don’t put ourselves at that standard. It’s important to stay humble.”
The award is named in honor of C. Oscar Baker for his 60 years of active service to the citizens of Mount Airy in Carroll County and throughout the state. According to the Maryland State Fireman’s Association website, the award is presented to a firefighter at the beginning of his or her career “to encourage them to reach the high level of service and dedication to our citizens that past president C. Oscar Baker exemplifies.”
“This year’s candidate was an exceptional candidate,” said Doug Alexander, who is the public information officer of the Mount Airy Volunteer Fire Department. “[His nomination application] shows he’s striving to do things right.”
Donais is the third Southern Maryland firefighter to receive the award recently after Seventh District Volunteer Fire Department’s Brandy Guy won in 2011 and Jeb Hayden won last year.
The trophy that will reside in the Potomac Heights station for the next year will be brand new, after the original trophy was retired.
“He’s always been a rising star in our organization and it’s been fun to watch him grow up and turn into a young man and a young fireman,” said Potomac Heights VFDRS President Justin Lucas. “Every call he makes for the firehouse [is a good one], he makes smart decisions and he’s an aggressive young guy who doesn’t really stand out in specific instances.”
“He’s a lead-by-example guy who’s very aggressive, very knowledgeable and has potential to be an outstanding leader,” Potomac Heights VFDRS Chief Matthew Rogers said.
Rogers said Donais was “an integral part” of a team that battled a structure fire in 2019 in which a fire department member suffered a heart attack.
“He was outstanding,” Rogers said of Donais. “He knew what to do and went right to work, and that individual’s here today. It’s a group effort, 100% of course, and Brenden was part of that group effort.”
Donais was presented with a citation and a coin by Charles County Commissioner Thomasina O. Coates (D) and a framed collage of patches from the Charles County Volunteer Firemen’s Association.