Bar Bulletin

September, 2003


Not Quite The End of the Earth
By Patrick Tandy

“I was in the house when the house burned down,” the late Warren Zevon once sang. But while Zevon’s statement invokes a figurative image, Mt. Vernon, Maryland, resident Karen Martin Dean can make the claim in a very literal sense.

Dean “It was a beautiful, humongous old house that had been totally renovated,” Dean, a volunteer firefighter with the Mt. Vernon Volunteer Fire Department and general practitioner for the Legal Aid Bureau’s office in Salisbury, says of the call her company responded to last Thanksgiving Day. “I feel for these people. Something went wrong with the chimney. They had cedar shingles on the roof, so that was completely gone before they realized their house was on fire. It was an all-day battle.”

Things took an increasingly dramatic turn when the structure partially collapsed – with two other Mt. Vernon volunteer firefighters still inside.

Karen Martin Dean

“Fortunately we were able to pull them out,” Dean adds.  “They had to go to the hospital, so it really was a wake-up call for me because, for some reason, it hadn’t really occurred to me that it was dangerous to do that.  Now I can see that a little bit differently.”

Following subsequent firefighter survival and rescue training through the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute (MFRI), the Mt. Vernon Volunteer Fire Department now posts a team on standby at each scene, never hoping – but always ready – for the worst.

“Your only job is to stand there and wait for a disaster so you can help,” says Dean. “The whole company went through training for that. MFRI’s really good about getting training; if you see the need, you can call them and say, ‘We really want training,’ and they’ll do it.”

But training can only take one so far. “You can never really train for the exact fire you’re going to go into,” Dean points out. “They’re always different, but you have to be ready to face panic.”


 “My grandparents went to Mt. Vernon to visit friends in the ‘40s or ‘50s,” Dean explains of her family’s initiation into the small community nestled along the Wicomico River. “The house that I’m living in now – this little beach cottage – was for sale. They fell in love with it and bought it. Then my parents bought it from them. Now my husband and I are buying it from my parents. So I’ve been coming down here since I was born.”

“I wouldn’t call it a hot spot for tourism,” Dean says. “Somerset County has fewer people than Salisbury. It’s the poorest county in Maryland, also, which is probably because we don’t have any people to pay taxes, plus watermen don’t make a whole lot.”

Like the community Dean describes as being “mostly agriculture and family farmers and watermen,” so is firefighting a mainstay of her family history.

“My father has been a firefighter since his early 20s – more than 30 years,” says the Dover, Delaware, native. As newlyweds, her parents moved to Cheswold, Delaware. “The minister came down and knocked on the door and said, ‘We really need help with the fire department.’ My dad had no history of that at all, but he thought it sounded interesting, and he’s been doing it ever since. He’s been the Assistant Director of the Delaware State Fire School for more than 10 years.”

Although admitting to having been “Miss Fire Prevention” in high school, however, Dean herself was not lured into service herself until two years ago, when she and her husband Jeff took up permanent residence in Mt. Vernon.

“We are 15 minutes from Princess Anne, which is the next available fire department,” Dean says. “We’re 20, 30 minutes from the hospital, which is here in Salisbury. I mean, we’re not in the middle of nowhere” – she pauses, before adding with a laugh, “They say it’s not the end of the earth, but you can see it from there.”

But end of the earth or not, Dean and her husband are conscious of the risks sometimes taken by those who live well off the beaten path. “[Jeff] and I were talking about it,” she says. “It occurred to [us] that if your house catches on fire you’re just going to have to take care of each other.”


Karen Martin Dean
Photo Courtesy of Jeff Dean

It was the same conclusion a handful of area residents had made only two decades earlier, which led to the founding of the Mt. Vernon Volunteer Fire Department. “The seed was planted, but we had only been there a couple of days and we thought we would think about it,” says Dean. “And then September 11 came, and I can remember sitting on the couch thinking, ‘I am not going to sit here the next time this happens.’ But I couldn’t do anything. I wasn’t trained for anything [outside of the law]. After September 11, the fire department put up on a sign [that read] ‘We need help.’ Jeff walked in and said, ‘We want to help. What do you need?’”

When then-Chief David Barnette told them the Department needed Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT), both Dean and her husband enrolled in the 130-hour EMT training course the following month, completing it in May 2002.

We run 300 to 400 calls a year, which is small compared to the city, but at least two-thirds of those are ambulance calls,” says Dean, who serves as Ambulance Captain as well as Secretary. “We don’t have anybody paid at all, let alone a paramedic. The paramedic is in Princess Anne. It takes them 10 to 20 minutes to get down to Mt. Vernon. We provide basic life support. We basically try to hold on till a paramedic gets there, or [we] transport [the victim] and meet the paramedic if it’s urgent.

“[As Ambulance Captain], I’m responsible for the ambulance. I have to be sure we have adequate supplies. Since we’re only basic life support, as opposed to advanced life support, which is the paramedic, we do not carry drugs for the most part. Which is good, because that’s really a burden. We do have a few things. Like an epinephrine pen, for example, for if someone’s having an allergic reaction. EMTs are allowed to give that, and that’s an important thing to have because if you’re having a reaction where your throat’s swelling shut, you don’t want to wait 10 minutes for the paramedic to come. You want to get that now.”

More keen on volunteering than ever, the Deans followed their EMT training with the 102-hour Firefighter I course, which covers the basics of firefighting.

“It costs so much to outfit a firefighter,” Dean notes, citing equipment that can run into thousands of dollars. “They like you to live here a year before you do it. It costs a fortune to outfit us, and they don’t want to go through that if you’re going to be here for 10 minutes. Especially if you’re smaller or larger than the average person because then someone can’t [easily] use your gear after you.”

But Dean doesn’t foresee her equipment being used by anyone but herself; the work means too much to her. “I guess it’s dangerous, but you look out for each other,” she says. “I trust the people that I go with. My company is a good company, very careful about safety, so I wouldn’t worry about that. If you’re not going to serve your community, who is? I mean, you really don’t have any options. This fire department is only there because some good people from the community, men and women, just decided to get together and do something about a problem they saw. It’s incredibly brave of them, in my mind.”

It’s that very ethos that drives Dean to volunteer. “[I like] being able to respond when there’s an emergency,” she says. “I don’t like sitting at home if there’s a problem. And it’s so nice to know that we’re self-sufficient. We don’t have to sit there and wait. If there is a disaster, I feel like I could do something. It’s also nice to take care of your own. A lot of people in Mt. Vernon are elderly. Just a few weeks ago, we took a gentleman who had cancer to the hospital, and he died three days later, never coming home again. It’s kind of a responsibility because you think, ‘The last time he saw his house we were there.’ And you want to be sure he was treated with dignity. He understood that the people who were taking care of him knew him and respected him.”

Belonging to such a close-knit community also means responding to a wide variety of calls, ranging from structure fires to highway accidents to water rescues. Dean is particularly concerned about people’s carelessness around the water.

“We have a lot of water rescues in the summer, [and they] tend not to be people from here,” she says. “They’ll go out with an electric motor into the middle of the sound and get trapped and don’t come home. The good thing is that they tend to let people know when they’re coming in, so even if they’ve been floating around for three hours we tend to find them okay. They’ve just had to sit out in the sun. We have some terrible bug problems down here – mosquitoes the size of birds, they joke – and if you’re trapped out on a boat, not moving at all, you don’t feel too good after a few hours.”

“Car accidents are always dramatic,” Dean continues. “We’re fortunate that we don’t have the highway running through Mt. Vernon. We did have one Saturday where one of our members – the former Secretary – was getting married, and somebody involved with the wedding came around a turn too sharply and hit a pole in Mt. Vernon. He was fine; we got him in the ambulance, but he brought the pole down across the road – which is the only way to get in – and he was on the Princess Anne side of the church. So, we had a wedding happening and we had to wait for Connectiv to come. We managed to get the bridal party through; they were right behind the accident. They drove through a yard. The woman who owned that yard wasn’t too pleased, so we couldn’t do that any longer and we had a-hundred-and-some guests coming into Mt. Vernon for the wedding who then had to get back to Princess Anne for the reception. And Connectiv couldn’t work any faster than they were working. You can’t take people through an accident scene. So it was really amazing. The whole community came together. Fortunately, some of our school bus drivers lived past the accident, so we had everyone park at the church that was past it, up the road, and get on the school bus and pull up to the accident scene. And we had a school bus waiting on the other side. Fortunately we had one on each side, and they could walk around a house and not go on the scene, get on the other school bus and get bussed to the church for the wedding. Then we had to do the opposite and get them back to their cars to go to the reception. We were there for seven or eight hours, varying people. The wedding photographer came down and took photos. The [videographer] came down and took video. I know it really meant a lot to her that we got her wedding to go forward, on schedule.”

Not every call results in a happy ending, however. “We’ve had some bad accidents with fatalities, and that’s not something you want to see,” Dean notes. “You just have to remember that they’re past hope when you get there, sometimes, and you just have to make it easiest for their family, make their family get through it as easily as possible.”

The Mt. Vernon Volunteer Fire Department itself experienced tragedy when Barnette, whose brother and daughter both belong to the Department, succumbed to cancer this past May. “He’d been the chief for 17 of the [Department’s] 21 years, so that was a huge blow,” Dean laments. “It kind of felt like we lost our heart, but we’re still here.”

Despite moments of drama and loss within and without the station’s family, however, much of the firefighters’ routine is of a more staid nature.

“We have to do a lot of fund raising because we’re not fully supported by the county or anything,” Dean says. “They just don’t have the funds for it. We have to write grants to try to afford our truck. We’re putting up a new station right now, which costs between $300,000 and $400,000.”

But for the community of approximately 1,000 residents, the cost is well worth it; after all, the building does more than house the Fire Department. “The fire hall is really the center of the community,” Dean says. “The Ladies Auxiliary has spaghetti dinners there. It’s our polling place.”

As an “outsider,” Dean’s involvement with the Fire Department also helped to accelerate her integration with the community. “Once you’re in the community, everybody knows who you are,” she laughs.

And they know what’s going on, too. “Everyone has scanners,” she adds. “Now they hear me on the radio and think, ‘Who’s that? I don’t know her voice.’ I’ve shown up at ambulance calls and the people introduce themselves while they’re having chest pains because they don’t know me yet, and they want to get to know me because I’m in the Fire Department now. My mom always said, ‘If you want to join a community, join the fire department,’ and I didn’t fully appreciate that until I did.”


Dean’s first “brush with the law” came while majoring in wildlife conservation – entomology, or the study of insects, to be specific – at the University of Delaware. There she minored in political science. An interest in environmental law took her to Montana State University for her last year of college.

“As I was out there I realized that I liked to play outside,” she recalls, “but I wasn’t fully sure biologists got to do what I wanted to do, which was hike around and ride my mountain bike. So I thought, ‘Well, I could still do this for fun, but I can go to law school.’” While taking her Masters Degree in Environmental Law at Vermont Law School (where she participated in the South Royalton Legal Clinic), Dean ultimately found that particular field to be “boring” and “full of regulations.” With her J.D. in hand, she took the bar exam in Pennsylvania, where she spent two years as a clerk with the Pennsylvania Superior Court before eventually returning to the Eastern Shore and settling in at the Legal Aid Bureau.

“I like working here because we’re doing the right thing,” Dean says. “It’s easy to get up and come here. I meet a lot of very interesting people in this job, which I absolutely love. When I was an appellate clerk I didn’t see anybody besides the secretaries and the judge and other clerks. We had absolutely no contact with the public. Here, I love that I see people all day long from all walks of life and they all have an interesting story. Most of them are just in a bad place and they’re very grateful for our assistance. Without us they would probably have a much smaller chance, if they had a chance at all.”


It is in her devotion to those around her that Dean’s professional and social beings share a common core.

“I’d say that both of them require being a part of the community,” Dean says. “Sometimes you see things in either one that are hard to look at, but I’ve never been the kind of person that believes that if I don’t look at it it’s not there. It makes me feel better to somehow look at it and deal with it and bring whatever good I can to the situation, even if it’s not making it perfect, even if it’s getting someone 30 days’ notice if that’s the best I can do. Just knowing that I’m doing the best that I can.

“You show up [during] somebody’s hardest times. You know they’re losing everything they have, and whatever you can do to make it easier, whether it’s trying to save their fish or calling the Red Cross so that they get food. Saving whatever furniture you can. That kind of thing.”

And Dean wants to be certain her motives are clear.

“I didn’t go into the fire company necessarily because I want people to look at me and think, ‘Wow! She’s so amazing, giving to her community,” because I don’t think of it like that at all. I mean it’s my responsibility. It’s really only fair that we take care of each other.”

Dean recalls once sitting in a professionalism course:

“The guy went around and asked what we did for community service. I was like, ‘I work for Legal Aid and I’m a volunteer firefighter,’ and the guy next to me was like, ‘I don’t even want to say anything after her because she does all this stuff.’ I don’t really look at it that way. It’s just that I’m not happy if I’m not doing that. Blame my parents, I guess, because that’s how they were, and it really didn’t occur to me there was another way.”



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