A Chief Concern
John S. Butler, B.A. ʼ03
The whistle of the sand in the heat-allaying wind. The inviting spray of the sparkling ocean. Your closely connected family enjoying the sights, the smells and the feel together. These are the wondrous tender experiences of a childhood.
But you’d forgive 48-year-old John S. Butler, B.A. ʼ03, if he wondered if it had ever happened. He was used to deploying in war-torn countries, eyes focused, rolling out to give assistance. But Liberia was his home. How could this have happened to his home?
“I really didn’t recognize much when we first went over to help in 2010,” Butler says. “I hadn't been back there since (the age of 12) when my family had to leave because of the political unrest in the country. The Liberia I knew was incredibly Western, a vacation getaway for many, along with a good social and economic system. But after years of internal strife, you saw poverty, sick people and remnants and relics of what once was. Coming back and seeing this ... it was just sad to see.”
He was there to help put out a fire as part of a U.S.-based volunteer group. The fire being the lack of equipment, firefighter training, even a fire truck. But this is his specialty. Literally.
Butler, named chief of the Howard County (Maryland) Department of Fire and Rescue Services in 2015, was thrown into service on Day One as a firefighter in 1993. “My first ever shift as a firefighter, I was fortunate enough to save someone in a smoke-filled apartment,” he says. “You can go your whole career without that happening, but it just shows that you have to be prepared in life.”
Preparation, in fact, has been a hallmark for Butler, as evidenced by 21 years of service in the Marines, more than two decades serving in the fire department, an undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Baltimore and a graduate degree in management from Johns Hopkins University. And the UB degree was in three concentrations. Yes, three.
“It just sort of happened,” he says. “History, government/public policy and management. I have a lot of interests, [and] I like to pursue them.” But more than anything, he pursues service. “In my job, I’m trying to encourage even more understanding,” he says. “It’s about taking the time to listen to our community and emergency responders. Fighting fires, you need to remember that these are people. This is someone’s home that was lost.” Butler, in his own way, knows something about the uneasy feeling of being displaced.
Still, now that he’s been back to aid Liberia multiple times, it’s starting to feel a little closer to the country he once knew. “It seems to be getting more safe and you can see a few more smiles,” he says. “Again, we need to remember that it was the vice president of Liberia who helped find the money for us to ship the truck over and bring the equipment. And you should have seen the thrilled reactions of the firefighters getting all the gear. They told us they had thought everyone forgot about them. You can tell how much they appreciated us coming from the U.S.”
And now, when Butler thinks of Liberia, he has both his childhood memories and a memory of a different type of family: firefighters and EMTs coming together to help those with a similar mindset of service.