By Erika Jacobson Moore
Fire-Rescue Chief W. Keith Brower Jr. can still picture his first call as a firefighter in Loudoun. It was in the middle of the night—a house fire on Silcott Springs Road midway between Philomont and Purcellville.
“We had a panel truck that was designed as a personnel carrier … and I can remember that first call being all excited in the back of the truck and looking up and seeing the glow in the sky from the fire,” he said.
That was 1973, and 16-year-old Brower was an inaugural member of the Purcellville Volunteer Fire Company’s junior firefighter program.
Then, the Loudoun fire-rescue system was an all-volunteer network of companies spread across the county. Now, as Brower retires this spring, the system is a massive combination fire-rescue organization that has maintained its commitment to volunteer service while providing a modern structure to meet the growing needs of county residents.
In almost 45 years of service, Brower has been a key player in that shift. He helped standardize the training processes and open needed facilities. He’s helped create governing plans for the system, guided the organization through difficult growing pains, and paved the way for volunteers and career staff to work better together.
His lifelong commitment to fire-rescue service was recently recognized by the state with the 2018 Governor’s Fire Service Award for Career Fire Chief of the Year.
Brower has always had a deep, personal connection to the job. “I said in an interview a long time ago … I got a closing question: Why should we hire you? And I said, because I care. And I’ve always kept that. At the end of the day, I care. If you don’t personalize this job and live it each day, what are you doing?”
Those who have worked with him said that personal connection drives his work, from the time he was a teenage volunteer to his years as chief, from his passion for fire prevention to providing the services that employees need.
“He has the heart of a firefighter,” County Administrator Tim Hemstreet said. “And that crosses both career and volunteer lines. A resident doesn’t care who shows up, as long as they can take care of them and their loved ones. And Keith understands that.”
“I am not sure there has ever been a government employee like Keith,” said Billy Goldfeder, Loudoun’s fire chief in the late 1980s for whom Brower worked as an assistant chief. “He never waned from what’s best for the community and what’s best for the people. There are a few that walk the walk and talk the talk, and that’s Keith.”
That commitment to people is also what fed one of Brower’s biggest professional passions: fire prevention. He’s worked locally, regionally and nationally to improve fire prevention methods, promote changes to the building code and encourage more public education programs.
“I’d always thought the best thing we can do is put sprinklers in these houses. Even back in the ’80s I thought that,” he said, noting that fire prevention and public education go hand in hand. “It’s one thing to go out and install smoke alarms. It’s another to have an active program where you’re going and knocking on doors. It’s not where we need to be yet because we are such a diverse county … but it’s a work in progress.”
Brower has also drawn from his personal experiences as a firefighter to ensure Loudoun County Fire-Rescue serves its employees and volunteers.
On Dec. 1, 1974, Brower, then just an 18-year-old volunteer, responded to the site of the TWA plane crash on Rt. 601 that killed 92 people. Brower and other volunteer firefighters were tasked with marking the perimeter of the crash site, including plane debris and bodies, along the Blue Ridge. The experience gave Brower a recurring nightmare of driving on Rt. 601 and looking out the window to see a plane coming right at him.
“That was the stress that was just buried that wasn’t able to come out because we didn’t talk about it,” he said.
With the modern focus on post-traumatic stress disorder, there’s been more attention paid to public safety personnel after traumatic scenes, but Brower wanted to make sure Loudoun employees had easier access to necessary services. As chief, he worked to amend the contract to allow fire-rescue personnel to bypass general mental health services and go right to specialized counseling that focuses on first responders.
“That’s landmark, and to me that’s a blessing because I know it’s salvaged some employees,” he said, quick to note that without Hemstreet’s support there would not have been any change. “He carried the water for us. … There had been a big push happening and it all came together; I just happened to be the guy in the seat.”
But Hemstreet is just as quick to credit Brower: “He’s done a lot internally to make sure we provide medical support for our volunteer and career personnel,” he said, noting specifically to Brower’s work on mental and behavioral health services for public safety employees and establishing standards for physical health so firefighters can withstand the rigor of the job.
“He’s committed to the motto, ‘everybody goes home,’” Hemstreet said. “He has the ability to place everything in perspective. It is a stressful job, but he has the ability to keep going for his people.”
Brower’s commitment to public safety is eclipsed only by his dedication to his family, even as his job pulled him away from family functions and Christmas dinners with his wife, Cheryl, and their three sons, or when he would work all day and be up all night on a call.
“I’m not the only one who’s been on the pager 24/7,” he said of his family, calling his marriage “a true partnership.”
When then-chief Joseph Pozzo decided to retire in 2009, he approached Brower about serving as acting chief. “He said, I’m not going to give you an answer; I want to talk to my wife and family about it. And that tells you everything you need to know about Keith,” Pozzo said.
It was his father who instilled a love of firefighting and public service in Brower. William Keith “Bill” Brower Sr. joined the Purcellville Volunteer Fire Company in 1952, four years before his son was born. Some of Brower’s earliest memories are of his father going out on calls.
“My father worked in DC … and he would normally get up around 6 in the morning. I clearly remember standing in the bathroom watching him shave, and he smelled of smoke because he’d been on a fire all night,” Brower said. “I can just envision that; it’s almost like I can still smell the smoke. And I would always ask him, ‘what happened, where was it?’”
Brower remembers the bell going off at the Purcellville station during the day and seeing people running out of their businesses to respond. Each day during summer vacation he would spend time at the fire station—whether or not his father was there—just looking at the fire trucks. “It started very early on for me,” he said of his passion for firefighting.
After college and spending a few years at Station 26 in Fairfax County, Brower was hired in 1984 by then-Chief Oliver Robert “O.R.” Dubé as the fire training officer—making him one of the earliest career fire-rescue employees hired in Loudoun.
“We had no training facilities,” he noted about his first years in Loudoun. “We had more hours of school in the room at old Station 1 in Leesburg. If we wanted to burn, we had to find houses that were ready for demolition. And the goal was not to burn it down until everyone had had a chance to go in.”
In 1985, the Board of Supervisors purchased 92 acres along Sycolin Road, of which 25 acres were dedicated to a fire-rescue training academy. Brower was involved in the design of the facility, writing functional specifications that would meet the needs of a growing system, as well as identifying various structures that needed to be simulated to properly prepare firefighters for what they might encounter in the field. The facility opened in 1990.
As with most accomplishments that he was involved in, Brower is quick to push recognition to his colleagues and mentors. The centralized training facility, he said, was Dubé’s vision.
“He believed that a well-trained, unified volunteer force was the right way to do business,” Brower said. “It was a vision I shared. And it worked for a number of years. But we just got overrun by the population.”
As the head of fire-rescue operations from the 1980s until he became fire marshal in 2004, Brower was on the front line of the system’s changes. There was the first wave of requests for career staff support from volunteer companies in eastern Loudoun in the late 1980s, followed by a second wave from companies in western Loudoun starting in the mid-1990s.
“Then it was like the floodgates opened,” he said, noting there were continued tensions as the county navigated how to move from all-volunteer companies to the combined system. During those years, Brower was always focused on what was best for the county and its residents.
“I still have tremendous allegiance to the volunteer system, but my primary allegiance is to the public,” he said. “That’s got to take priority.”
It was Brower’s collaboration skills that helped him manage the system’s growth, Goldfeder said.
“He brought that unique personality where he could get all the parts of the system sounding like a pretty good orchestra. And he was the orchestra leader,” he said. “He could have 100 people in a room talking about an issue, and by the end he can get 85-90 to understand his point of view.”
The county had developed a service plan in the 1980s, but it did not address the needs of a combined system. When Pozzo became chief in the mid-2000s, he focused on creating both a service plan for the county and a strategic plan for fire-rescue.
“Keith was a very intricate piece of both of those plans,” Pozzo said. “His knowledge about fire service and Loudoun County Fire-Rescue as a system and as a department was invaluable.”
When he retired in 2009, Pozzo saw Brower as the natural choice to serve as the next fire-rescue chief, and he made that recommendation to Hemstreet.
“I just knew that with his personality and demeanor that he’d be able to see the system to the next step,” Pozzo said. “I also saw it in his leadership with the volunteers. I saw it in his work in the fire marshal’s office. You want someone who has those perspectives.”
At the time, however, Brower was eligible to retire. And he said he was perfectly happy to retire as the fire marshal, even when Pozzo approached him about putting in to be the next chief.
“I think it was recognition that the system was at a tipping point because we still had the governance structure of the commission—six volunteer representatives and the chief,” Brower said of Pozzo’s endorsement. “And there was the whole idea of who is really running the system and who is accountable to the Board of Supervisors.”
It is seeing the county system through that transition that will be one of Brower’s biggest legacies, Hemstreet said.
In July 2014, the county passed an ordinance solidifying the combined system and placing formal authority of the system with the chief.
“He was in front of that work,” Hemstreet said. “And he’s spent the past four years implementing that change.”
Pozzo has also been struck by Brower’s accomplishments since he became chief in 2010. “He’s evolved the system into what it is today. I am proud to have worked with him.”
Now, Brower said, “it’s time.” He expects some “bumps and bruises” in the transition to retirement, but his first priority is completing the move to South Carolina and checking off a few things on the bucket list. But he doubts his time in public service is over. He wants to continue his work on fire prevention and public education, getting back to his training roots for organizations and associations around the country that he’s connected with through his work in Loudoun.
“I think just sitting around at this point is just not in the game,” he said.