By Kris Kitto - 11/11/08 05:01 PM EST
While many college students laugh in the face of fire — one of the oldest dorm pranks is a quick tug of the fire alarm at 3 a.m. — Tommy Nguyen bowed down to it during his days at the University of Maryland.
Nguyen, now a Republican staff assistant on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, remembers being “christened by the fire gods” in the first fire he fought as a volunteer firefighter for the university department. After completing more than 200 hours of classroom training and running up nine flights of stairs while weighed down with 150 pounds of gear, he got his first chance to enter the flames during a four-alarm apartment fire in Laurel, Md.
It was “a good fire,” he says, in the same way others might talk about a trip to the movie theater or a stroll on the National Mall.
Nguyen, 26, now applies his firefighting skills to his work on the Hill — he sees a considerable overlap, believe it or not — and also imparts his knowledge as an older and wiser member of his volunteer fire department.
Sitting on a patio a couple of blocks from the Hart Senate Office Building, Nguyen, in a white dress shirt that strains over his burly shoulders, explains that firefighting has been a lifelong dream.
“It’s going to sound cheesy, but what little boy growing up doesn’t stop when he sees a big, red fire engine roll by?” he says.
As a sophomore at Maryland, Nguyen signed up to be a firefighter at Station 12, a campus-owned volunteer department whose student firefighters receive free housing in exchange for their services.
Shortly thereafter, he delivered a baby while riding on the station’s ambulance (“It’s messy,” he says), had the roof of a burning building collapse on him and testified in a trial involving a fatal fire.
Even the details of the job can be high-stakes. Nguyen laughs while recalling that he “learned the hard way” to quickly push off the station’s brass pole after landing from the approximately 30-foot slide, lest he be crushed by the next person heading down.
But the job’s varied demands don’t daunt him.
When asked about the collapsing roof, he responds, “That’s what helmets are for.”
When telling a story about hanging from a fourth-floor balcony, he matter-of-factly explains it was just a ho-hum episode of a “ladder slipping out from me.”
“You could die crossing the street in D.C.,” he says. “Or you could die running [into] a burning building. I am a firm believer in [the idea that] we all have a time and place, and I don’t really look into how dangerous things are.”
(He does admit to one exception: He’s terrified of downed power lines and does his “best to avoid them.”)
Not surprisingly, Nguyen seems to take the high drama of Capitol Hill in stride. After graduating from Maryland, he took a government relations job with Ryan Homes, an East Coast homebuilder headquartered in Northern Virginia. Nguyen grew up in the Washington area and studied politics in college, making for a natural transition to his Senate committee job.
Nguyen continued firefighting throughout, and he now sees how his firefighting skills have helped him on the Hill.
“I have no problem making decisions,” he says. “I think that I analyze the situation very quickly [and] I can provide a solution or answer very quickly … In the fire business, those really are life-and-death decisions, and you make them in a split second.”
He also credits firefighting for his resourcefulness. These days, Nguyen says, people call the fire department for a wide range of problems, such as when their basement floods, they lock their keys in their car or someone stops breathing.
“The public has come to think of the fire department as a jack of all trades,” he says. “We do everything and anything to help you. And so that requires you to think outside of the box a lot. I think that’s translated well into all different aspects of life.”
Nguyen is still very much committed to the fire station. He frequently uses fire lingo when talking about his volunteer job — “running” a fire is synonymous with fighting one; “riding” is being on the engine; a “probie” is a probationary, or rookie, volunteer firefighter. He also serves on the station’s board and tries to fit in at least one or two shifts per week. (He even has a third job, bartending one or two nights a week at 18th & Red in Adams Morgan. “I don’t sleep a lot,” he says.)
Nguyen is interested in advancing his career on the Hill and is contemplating law school or joining the Navy Reserve.
But for the foreseeable future, he will fight fires.
“I need that adrenaline rush,” Nguyen says. “I need to hear the bells go off and go running for the fire truck.”