July-August 2011 | Hometown

Hail to the Chief

Whatever the emergency-whether accident or fire-Jim Resnick has gone to the rescue since he was just a boy.

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Growing up in the Cohasset neighborhood of Bethesda, Jim Resnick kept a metal toolbox stuffed with bandages near his bike. Collisions on nearby River Road were common, and a neighbor recalls: “We have many memories of hearing the screeching tires, then waiting for the impact and then Jimmy running out of his front door with his bag in hand to assist the injured. His drive was there so young.”

Today Resnick is a battalion chief, one of the top-ranking officers in the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service. When I ask about his youthful adventures, he replies: “At the time there were no left-turn signals on River, and for all the wrong reasons—bad traffic engineering, excessive speed—there were some terrific crashes there. In hindsight, oh, my God, what was I jumping into? But as a 13- or 14-year-old I felt I had the knowledge and training to be able to go in there and make a difference.”

Resnick has been making a difference ever since. He describes his life as a “full- cycle dream-come-true kind of a thing,” and as corny as that sounds, he means it. At 53 he’s still a solid, muscular figure with closely cropped hair, and even after finishing a 24-hour shift, he radiates so much restless energy that if an accident occurred outside the coffee shop where we’re talking on Woodmont Avenue, I’m sure he’d leap up and race to the scene. Dressed in faded blue sweats with the fire department logo on his chest, he recalls how his lifelong passion began.

His father, Bernard, an engineer, worked for the Navy building nuclear submarines and the family lived in Arlington, Va., on a street with wide sweeping turns, perfect for training firefighters to drive hook and ladder trucks. When Jim was about 4, he says, and “playtime was over I refused to come in. I would sit on the front stoop and have my mom bring me lunch and watch them. Apparently I used to tell people that when I grew up I was going to be a fire truck.”

In the early ’60s Resnick’s dad joined the Atomic Energy Commission in Germantown and moved the family to Maryland. Young Jim had a “devilish side,” sometimes hopping the freight that rumbled through Bethesda in those days, but his heart was set on trucks not trains. When his mom went shopping at the Safeway on Old Georgetown Road, he’d stay in the car, watching the firehouse across the street and hoping the big rigs would get a call and burst into action. “Occasionally I’d sneak across the street and see if the guys would let me see the trucks,” he says.

One day at Pyle Junior High, he heard an announcement offering first-aid training at the Red Cross, and quickly signed up. Soon he was spending weekends at places like the Cabin John ice rink. “Most of the time we didn’t see anything, but occasionally you’d see someone with a cut or even a broken arm,” he recalls. “Then we’d get to go out on the ice and patch ’em up and haul them off until the rescue squad came.”

All kids need a place to belong, a name to wear on their sweatshirts. The minimum age for joining the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad is 17½, and the day he reached that mark Resnick volunteered.

He remembers the first call he ever answered: A child had fallen off a jungle gym and broken both arms. As he watched the “professionalism and compassion” of the squad members, he knew he’d found his life’s work. “I was just blown away,” he recalls. “That’s what I wanted to do.”

But his parents were not convinced. His father’s brother had been killed in a Boston nightclub fire in 1942. “So when my father’s son says, ‘I’m going to run into burning buildings,’ I had some obstacles to overcome,” Resnick says.

The cultural obstacles were even greater. “Being a firefighter was more of a blue-collar job than most people would expect from a Bethesda boy, educated in the best schools in the country. There was a little kicking and screaming.” Plus the Resnicks were Jewish, and all their friends were saying, “My son’s a doctor, my son’s a lawyer,” Resnick recalls with a laugh. “But I’ve always marched to my own drummer.”

That beat took him to the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, but he spent many weekends back in Bethesda, working at the rescue squad. And after graduation a series of jobs led him in 1986 to a full-time firefighter’s position in Cabin John. Two years later the county merged its units into a single system, and today it has 1,200 professional firefighters based in 35 stations answering 120,000 calls a year.

Resnick married Beth Flax, who teaches public health at Johns Hopkins, and they are raising three teenage boys in Kensington, only a few miles from where he grew up. Montgomery County has grown dramatically since the days when he rushed to crashes on River Road.

Firefighters joke that they protect “mini-Manhattan,” the high-rises that now dominate central Bethesda. And Metro “changes everything,”Resnick says. “We’ve got these tubes with 2,000 people at a time going 60 miles an hour, 200 feet below Wisconsin Avenue. It changes the kind of training you have to do, the kind of preparations that you have.”

But the biggest change is people. Four out of five calls answered by firefighters are medical emergencies, and when Resnick started his career, the suburbs were “bedroom communities” that “emptied out” every morning. Now they are crowded throughout the workday, and as he puts it, “where the people are is where the calls are.”

Suddenly, in the middle of our conversation on a weekday morning, a pumper truck comes barreling down Woodmont Avenue. Resnick looks up and beams: “There are my boys.”

Steve Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. This column was suggested by a reader; send other ideas to svroberts@aol.com.