Amid shifting political sands, Howard County fire and rescue services director Richard W. Shaw has decided he's burned out after 43 years of firefighting.
With a new county executive in office and rumors of changes on the way, Shaw, 58, will retire at the end of the month, a decision he says he made "totally on my own."
"There comes a time when it's appropriate to step down. I feel that point is at hand," said Shaw, who has served as director since August 1984.
"It was my decision. I thought it was time for me to make the move."
After a career in which he served in every job classification in the fire service and saw Howard County evolve from a rural outpost to the fastest-growing Baltimore metropolitan county, Shaw says he may not stop cold turkey.
He expects that he may still offer his help to the volunteer firefighters in his Clarksville hometown, where he has lived all his life and where, as a teen-ager in 1948, he began his career.
"Back then, volunteer firefighters were the sole focus of the community," said Shaw. He added that all operating money for the fire service was raised through firefighter auctions, dances, bingo games and potluck dinners. "It's not that way anymore, but I still haven't ruled out the possibility of going back to the volunteer system."
Shaw's tenure as director in the fire service has been devoid of public controversy and he has been one of the quietest of the major county department heads -- a difficult feat for such a high-profile position.
"I like to be low key, and I think I've been able to keep things that way since I've been here," he said.
But that low-key style was recently alluded to by the transition team of new County Executive Charles I. Ecker, which in a Dec. 4 interim report stated that "the lines of command are not clear between the volunteers and career personnel" in the fire service.
The report went on to state: "Each of the groups thinks the other is trying to sabotage them. It has become a nasty situation." The report suggested that the executive establish a committee to investigate the problems.
Two days after the report was released, Shaw officially and unexpectedly announced his decision to retire from the $69,000-a-year job.
Ecker had not made any plans to replace the fire director and the transition team "was still out on the subject" when Shaw made his retirement announcement, said Beverly Wilhide, a co-chairman of the transition team.
She said no one has yet been suggested as a replacement.
A county fire and rescue services board will select one or more potential replacements for Shaw and will recommend them to Ecker, Wilhide said. The executive will choose one of the candidates from the list, Wilhide said.
Shaw became one of the county's first career firefighters on Jan. 1, 1962, at a salary of $4,200 a year. In the pre-Columbia days, the biggest fires seen in Howard County were brush fires and the department's one ambulance made its way across gravel roadways, Shaw said.
Now, the $13-million-a-year department has 12 ambulances and the county's 10 fire stations can no longer raise money for the electric bill by passing a hat, as Shaw says it used to.
The challenge of keeping pace with the county's rapid housing growth is perhaps the most pressing problem facing the fire and rescue services, Shaw said. The department employs 198 career firefighters, paramedics, clerical workers and medical technicians. It also lists 400 volunteers. These numbers, Shaw says, must increase in proportion to growth.
Medical emergencies for the growing number of homes will become increasingly difficult for rescue workers to meet. But fire-related calls may not be as demanding, due to the county's relative "new-ness," Shaw said.
"The fire situation in Howard County over the years has never been that serious," Shaw said. Typically, the department records fewer than 10 fires a year, with fire damage estimated at $200,000 or more. Those numbers are low for a county with a population of 188,000.
"Howard County has been a fire-safe community," Shaw said. "One of the reasons is that it's a new community. The older communities are always more susceptible to fire."
Among the improvements Shaw instituted in the department were such technical changes as providing pager-like devices that emit alarms when firefighters enter burning buildings, and installing sprinkler systems in new fire stations.
Shaw also implemented health care programs such as periodic inoculations of hepatitis-B vaccine for firefighters and annual agility testing.
Shaw says he has no plans for a new career after he leaves the fire service. He expects to return to his Clarksville home and catch up on work around the house, he said.
"I'm still young enough that I can stay busy," he said. "I'll obviously miss what I've been doing for the last 43 years. I've worked with good people."