Baltimore County fire chief to quit after 38 years of service

April 12, 1994|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Glenn Small contributed to this article.

After 38 years in uniform, Baltimore County Fire Chief Elwood H. Banister announced his retirement yesterday.

The announcement was made in a letter distributed by the chief, who refused to discuss his decision with reporters.

The letter noted his retirement and recounted his professional history as a paid and volunteer firefighter. He has been chief for 3 1/2 years.

His action came two weeks after a presentation at a Cincinnati fire conference in which he reportedly criticized politicians and the effects of budget cuts on the fire service.

Several sources in the department and the administration of County Executive Roger B. Hayden said those remarks might have prompted -- or at least hastened -- the retirement, but Mr. Hayden denied it.

The executive said he had heard about the fire chief's remarks but that he wasn't bothered by them and did not force Chief Banister to retire.

"That had zero impact on me," he said.

Mr. Hayden praised Chief Banister's "lifelong record of public service" and his efforts since 1990 to "maintain a world-class fire service at its peak," despite hard economic times.

Kevin O'Connor, president of the county firefighters union, also praised Chief Banister.

"We congratulate the guy," Mr. O'Connor said. "He did put his heart and soul" into the Fire Department.

As fire union leader, Mr. O'Connor has been the chief critic of Mr. Hayden's budget cuts over the last three years. He said the cuts have reduced the number of firefighters, the size of truck crews and the number of trucks available for service.

Chief Banister, 59, technically will not retire until May 30, but he effectively gives up control of the department this week to Deputy Chief James H. Barnes Jr., 39, a 16-year veteran who was named acting chief by Mr. Hayden.

Mr. Hayden chose Deputy Chief Barnes, one of five deputy chiefs under Assistant Chief Edward J. Bartenfelder, after an interview Friday that lasted several hours.

Mr. Barnes, a deputy chief since May 1990, was in charge of the county's fire academy and emergency medical service until six months ago, when he took over fire prevention and investigative services.

With Mr. Hayden due to unveil his fourth county budget Thursday, Chief Banister's departure will leave Acting Chief Barnes to defend the spending plan for the Fire Department before the County Council.

Mr. Hayden chose Chief Banister to head the Fire Department on his first day in office in December 1990. Paul H. Reincke had retired as chief the previous month.

Chief Banister, a friendly, man known as "Woody," joined the department in May 1956. Since then, the fire service has expanded from 10 to 25 stations, including three medic stations, and the workweek has shrunk from 67 hours to 40 hours.

A member of the Cockeysville Volunteer Fire Company for more than 40 years, he has been an advocate for the county's combined volunteer and career firefighter concept throughout his career. His retirement announcement said the combined concept has resulted in "one of the strongest" coordinated fire and emergency medical service programs in the country.

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