Fire Department at a Crossroads

April 11, 1992

The way in which Herman Williams Jr. was appointed the city's new fire chief was extraordinary. No vacancy was declared upon the retirement of Peter O'Connor, no applicants were invited. Instead, the newly appointed fire board simply declared Mr. Williams the new chief. Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke pronounced himself "pleased with the fire board's selection."

Mr. Williams cannot be blamed for this irregular process. The only thing he did -- with success -- was to campaign for the fire chief's job, saying his 26 years as a firefighter (including three as a battalion chief) and four years as head of the city's Department of Transportation qualified him for the job. However, we think the fire board would have been smarter had it at least attempted a routine candidate search.

It is not by accident that the new fire board looks like a trio of marionettes, controlled by the mayor. Mr. Schmoke has made it quite clear he wants the board abolished. In fact, the recent municipal Organizational Review Team proposed that the daily operations of the fire department be vested with the fire chief, making the board unnecessary. The panel also recommended a total overhaul of the fire department's organization and said the chief's position should be removed from civil service.

Some of these recommendations are likely to be included in the report of a panel now studying Baltimore City's charter. Until the charter is changed by voters, the fire board will continue to operate as an oversight panel -- or as marionettes for the mayor.

The department's recent history is replete with problems. Many relate to the worsening city financial position, which has kept Baltimore from funding negotiated contracts to maintain specified personnel levels. These woes ultimately will pit the fire board -- and mayor -- against the union.

We hope the fire board has not put Chief Williams in a difficult bind. As the first black chief, his performance is likely to be under scrutiny in a predominantly white department, long controlled by Irish-Americans. The best card in Chief Williams' hand is the fact that he is both a department insider and outsider. If he plays it right, he may avoid the internecine fights that in recent years have made the department so difficult to run.

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