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When 23-year-old Grant McIntosh joined the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department as a volunteer firefighter, John F. Kennedy was president and a gallon of gas cost about 30 cents. He will be retiring on March 1 after serving the county for more than 50 years.

In 1962, McIntosh had just been discharged from a 4-year stint in the U.S. Air Force, where he became intrigued with aircraft rescue and fire suppression, and decided he wanted to be a firefighter in civilian life.

McIntosh became a full-time, paid county fireman in 1964 and served in that capacity for the next 30 years, participating in many memorable fires including the burning down of the Nightingale Club on Route 1, the Hillbilly Heaven club fire in Lorton, and the Lorton Prison riot fire of 1989, in which inmates set fire to their own barracks and successfully burned down the prison’s central administration building.

“That fire just kept getting bigger and bigger,” Grant remembers. “We couldn’t fight it like we needed to because of prisoners rioting and access issues within the prison.”

In 1994, McIntosh retired as a firefighter but remained within the department, becoming its first-ever fire and rescue chaplain.

“In the 1980s I became very involved with my church, the Virginia Hills Baptist Church, and I eventually became an assistant pastor there,” he said. “When I retired as a firefighter, I felt like the fire department could use a chaplain, so I ran the idea by Chief [Glenn A.] Gaines, and he agreed.”

As the department’s chaplain for nearly 20 years, McIntosh said he practiced what he calls a “ministry of presence” in which he would show up at fires and emergency situations, letting fire and rescue workers know he was there for them.

“When I was starting out as a young fireman, there was nothing like that,” he said. “If someone died in your arms or you tried to rescue a baby in a fire and they didn’t make it--anything like that--you just had to tough it out. There was no one to talk to. You just kept it inside to yourself. As a result, firefighters suffered high suicide rates and other mental problems. Although they don’t generally wear them out on their sleeves for everyone to see, firefighters do have feelings, and they need to talk about things like that to someone, for their own mental health.”

Ed Stauffer, executive director of the Federation of Fire Chaplains, agrees.

“Fire chaplains work within a very closed system,” Stauffer said. “Firefighters will generally not go outside their circle to seek help, but they will talk to someone inside it, someone who they feel they can trust and that they know as an insider--someone ‘within the yellow crime scene tape’ as we say.”

Toward that end, McIntosh said that as a chaplain he tried to be at as many fires and emergency scenes as he could be. “The battalion chiefs often told me they felt better just knowing I was there,” he said.

When American Airlines Flight 77 crashed into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, McIntosh was called to be the lead chaplain there.

“I stayed there for nine days in a tent,” he said. “Twelve military chaplains took care of their guys and I coordinated our 10 fire and rescue chaplains to look after the non-military fire and rescue personnel. My natural reaction as a firefighter was to go in and help with the rescue, but a chaplain from Chicago reminded me that I was there to save souls and told me to leave the saving of lives to the appointed rescue teams.”

After Sept. 11, McIntosh said he was given the go-ahead to recruit a team of eight chaplains to help him cover his duties within the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department.

“They finally realized that I couldn’t cover the entire county alone,” he said. “I began recruiting and screening applicants right away. I told applicants that as a chaplain they had to be anything anyone wanted them to be. They might be a Baptist minister within their own church, but as a chaplain they needed to be open to all religions and leave their personal theology at home. I also asked them all if they could handle seeing dead and badly burned bodies, severed limbs and other body parts, because if not, they didn’t need to apply.”

McIntosh remains highly regarded by many members of the fire department as well as the Federation of Fire Chaplains, who all say they will miss him. “Grant was truly a firefighter’s chaplain, both on the fire ground and off,” Fairfax County Fire and Rescue spokesman Dan Schmidt, said.

“He was the first. His position will be filled, but he cannot be replaced,” said Fairfax County Fire Chief Ronald Mastin.

“He was a great role model,” Stauffer commented. “Wherever and whenever something tragic was happening, Grant would be there to offer solace to whoever was in need. That is another function of fire chaplains, they offer comfort to families who are in the midst of suffering loss, so that the firefighters can do their jobs and not have to stop and act as grief counselors in the middle of an emergency.”

McIntosh said he will miss being both a firefighter and a chaplain, but says that he is having a home built in rural Edhrata, Pa. and that he will enjoy the peace and quiet there.

“There are a lot of Amish there, but you never hear a siren,” he said laughingly. “I plan to just sit on my porch and watch cars go by--or at least all the horse-drawn buggies.”

gmacdonald@fairfaxtimes.com