Prince George’s County Fire Captain does it again
By Karen L. Bune
He’s been there, done that, and is doing it again. Acting Captain Charles E. Finn III, 57, of the Prince George’s County Maryland Fire/EMS Department learned that the grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence and retirement is not all that it is cracked up to be. He came out of retirement and has been back on the job 4 ½ years.
His firefighting career began after he dropped out of college at Western Kentucky University where he spent three years. On a trip home from college and after Charles visited his best friend, Phil Buhler, who was a member of the Silver Hill volunteer Fire Department at the time, his interest was sparked to join the fire service. He left college and got a job as a truck driver for a parts company. He became a volunteer firefighter at age 21 for the Silver Hill Fire Department. “I really enjoyed fire department life. I liked the excitement and the camaraderie and the friendships I developed—many of which I’ve retained today,” said Flinn.
However, when he was a young volunteer there was an incident that left him shaken and caused him to think twice about being a firefighter. He recalled being on an apartment building fire as a young volunteer, and he was frozen with fear. “Nobody knew how scared I was but I knew how afraid I was, and I was absolutely ashamed of myself. I promised myself I would overcome this fear and would improve as a firefighter from that day on. That was the impetus that got me involved in the fire department full time as a career. I decided that’s what I wanted to do,” he said.
In April 1978, he secured his first full-time paid job as a firefighter for the National Institute of Health Fire Department in Bethesda, Maryland where he worked for four years. From there, he joined the Prince George’s County Fire/EMS Department in July 1982. “I wanted to go to a busy fire department,” said Flinn.
Throughout his career, he was burned and hospitalized three times. In 1992, there was a heavy fire at an agricultural research firm and flames were seen everywhere. “I was taking a beating. I had burns on my knees, hands, ears,” said Flinn who was subsequently taken to the Washington Hospital Burn Center by ambulance.
In 1996, he was on the scene of a severe house fire in Landover Hills, Maryland, and he was burned on his ears, face, and neck. He was hospitalized for two days at the burn center.
In April 1997, Flinn was attempting to rescue a child from a second floor window of a house fire. He ascended the ladder with a hose line and made two attempts, but the heat beat him back. “It was just unbearable,” he said. He then tried to make the rescue through the inside of the house. “I didn’t know where I was. I was trapped, screaming for help. That was one of the proverbial seeing your life flash in front of your face moments,” said Flinn. A few seconds later, he felt two firefighters picking him up by his arms and dragging him out of the house; he was exhausted. “The fire was so intense that the front part of my firefighter coat and the clip fasteners on the coat were totally discolored and almost burnt off,” he said. Sadly, the child he tried to rescue died in the fire.
Once again, Flinn went to the burn center and suffered from second degree burns on his face and ears and respiratory distress. “Everybody was real concerned about me. I became very concerned as well because that first night I couldn’t stand up. They put me in a wheel chair,” he said.
Flinn was uncertain if he could return to firefighting. “After the third one, I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to back to work because I was traumatized physically and mentally.” After eight weeks off on injury leave, he returned to work. “I was back there because I needed to be back to work,” he said.
Throughout his tenure in the fire department, Flinn rose to the rank of Captain. In September 2002, however, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. “The first thing I thought was I did my 20 years and now I got cancer. Initially the doctors wanted to do watchful waiting and not treat it, which I did, but I was never comfortable with that. Finally, in April 2003, my cousin died from a heart attack. He was 52. That’s when I questioned myself again wondering how much time I had. Finally, it took me over the edge and I made the decision to retire,” said Flinn. He retired on June 1, 2003. He had surgery at John Hopkins in Baltimore for his prostate cancer, and today remains cancer free.
Flinn is divorced, but he is engaged to a woman who works in the Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office. He has two children by his former marriage--Chris, 29, and Sean, 23. Both his parents are deceased. He has two younger brothers, George, 52, who lives in Maryland, and Tom, 51, who lives in Tennessee.
Flinn revealed that he did not feel comfortable at his retirement party. “I didn’t feel ready to retire. In addition, my fiancé urged me not to retire because she felt I still had firefighting in my blood. She had actually talked me out of retirement at the end of April. When I finally retired, I kept my decision from her because I thought she would talk me out of it. And, she was right all along—to this day,” he said. The first morning following his retirement, Flinn felt depressed. “I had a good idea that I really didn’t do the right thing,” he said.
He subsequently had various jobs, most of which were in the aviation industry. He also worked as a delivery driver for a flower shop and as a limousine driver.
Flinn admitted he did not enjoy his retirement. “One of the biggest reasons was losing the organizational identity. I wasn’t part of it anymore. It meant a lot to me to be a part of the fire department family. Long before I quit the airline jobs, I was thinking about returning to the fire service,” he said.
When Lawrence Sedgwick, now retired, became fire chief in 2004, Flinn knew he wanted to return to the fire service. “We had started with Prince George’s together in the same recruit school. We gained a mutual respect and admiration for each other that lasted an entire career,” he said.
At the fire department Christmas party that he attended with his fiancé that year, Flinn spoke to Chief Sedgwick about coming back to the fire department. “To have an opportunity to bring someone back was an easy choice for me. He was a dedicated employee who understood our mission. I knew he had a lot of fire service expertise that would definitely be an asset to our younger employees. He has a calming demeanor which has a positive attribute to being an officer. The biggest thing is: how do you motivate people? That is something Charlie can do. You’ve got to be able to have that personality and skill set to deal with the diversity in public safety. We need more people like him,” said retired Chief Sedgwick.
Flinn was rehired and began working in the fire department again in May 2005. Due to county personnel regulations, he could not assume the rank of Captain that he had before his retirement. However, Flinn was willing to be a firefighter and work his way back up the ranks. He has currently achieved the rank of Acting Captain, and he recently passed the written exam for potential promotion to the permanent rank.
“From the first day back, it was almost like I’d never left. I adjusted quite well to being back. I began studying for a promotional exam almost immediately,” said Acting Captain Flinn. I like my role being in a supervisory decision making capacity but, more importantly, as a mentor for the younger personnel coming up whose fathers I worked with,” he said. His fiancé believes he should have never left and that he is much happier now. “If I think about retiring again, I have to run it by my fiancé. She knows what’s best,” he said.
Karen L. Bune is employed as a Victim Specialist in the State’s Attorney's Office for Prince George's County, Maryland. She is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia and Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. Ms. Bune serves as a consultant for the Office for Victims of Crime and the Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U. S. Department of Justice. She is a nationally recognized speaker and trainer. She is a Board Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress and a Diplomate of the Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress and The National Center for Crisis Management. She is also Board Certified in Domestic Violence. Ms. Bune received the 2007 Notable Alumni Award from the Department of Public Affairs, American University, Washington, D. C. She is a 2009 inductee into the Wakefield High School (Arlington, VA) Hall of Fame. Ms. Bune appears in the 2009 edition of "Marquis Who’s Who in the World" and the 2009 edition of "Marquis Who’s Who in American Women."