New fire chief faces burning issues

June 16, 1995|By Gregory P. Kane | Gregory P. Kane,Sun Staff Writer

Stephen D. Halford, in his younger days, wanted to be a police officer, but he wasn't tall enough. Today, in rank at least, he towers over the rest of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department.

Mr. Halford is the county's fire administrator. On May 31, County Executive John G. Gary named him to the job, putting him in charge of the department's $46 million budget, 29 fire companies, 500 career fire fighters and 800 volunteer firefighters. The appointment came after Mr. Halford had spent 18 months as acting fire administrator.

"He's been the acting fire administrator for so long we decided to make it the real thing," Mr. Gary said during the news conference at which he announced Mr. Halford's appointment.

Mr. Halford, 41, replaced Paul C. Haigley Jr., who resigned fire administrator in November 1993 to take over the St. Lucy County, Fla., fire department. Mr. Haigley left after making a controversial decision to demote volunteer fire chiefs to the rank of captain.

Easing the tension that decision caused between volunteer and career firefighters is one of the job's challenges, said Mr. Halford, who also said his experiences as a volunteer and career firefighter may help him bring the two groups together.

"I think anytime you've walked a mile in anybody's shoes, you have the ability to empathize with their perspective," Mr. Halford said, adding that perfect harmony between volunteer and career firefighters "will never exist."

Leroy Wilkinson, president of the Anne Arundel County Professional Fire Fighters Local 1563, has frequently disagreed with Mr. Halford and the policy established by a committee set up over a year ago to restore the rank of volunteer fire chief.

"We don't think someone who comes in as a volunteer should be supervising career people," Mr. Wilkinson said. Despite their disagreements, however, he praised Mr. Halford, saying the two men had a "good working relationship."

"He's got a difficult job," Mr. Wilkinson said. "He's got to keep the peace between all the different factions in the department."

Mr. Halford is a good listener and will sometimes make changes after hearing the union's suggestions, Mr. Wilkinson said. The union's main fight with Mr. Halford now is over the fire administrator's new policy shifting the department's emphasis from fire to ambulance service.

"We think of ourselves as a fire department that handles EMS [emergency medical system] calls," Mr. Halford said. "We're actually an EMS department that handles fires."

The vast majority of the department's calls -- 72 percent -- are for EMS service, Mr. Halford explained. The number of EMS calls has risen steadily over the past 10 years, while the number of fire calls has remained constant and the severity of fires has decreased.

"Clearly, the need for the public is in EMS. Our organizational resources have to shift to where the problems are," he said.

Mr. Wilkinson and the union don't agree.

"The small improvement in EMS services will lead to a major reduction in fire service," Mr. Wilkinson said.

Sending firefighters, who are trained as paramedics, out on minor medical calls will leave a "gaping hole" in fire protection, he said.

Under the current system, engine or truck company personnel are first on the scene at medical emergencies. Paramedic units arrive later and take patients to the hospital, leaving the engine or truck driver free to return to the station.

Under the new plan, engine or truck drivers, who are trained in basic life support, would drive the ambulance to a medical emergency and take patients to the hospital.

Mr. Wilkinson noted in a May 1995 letter to Mr. Gary that the new plan means drivers would be away from the station for as much as 45 minutes. They are now away from the station for 10 to 15 minutes. In response to criticism about the plan, Mr. Halford has said the union is simply clinging to tradition.

"The fire service is tradition-bound," he said at Mr. Gary's news conference. "There is a saying about the department that it has ** 100 years of service unhindered by progress."

Mr. Halford said the department must progress, if only to meet the demands of a changing work force. Recognizing that the job is no longer an exclusively white male enclave, Mr. Halford has introduced training in cultural diversity and increasing awareness sexual harassment.

The department has 41 black members, 173 women and 10 Hispanics in the career and volunteer units.

Getting the volunteer companies to sign a contract giving him authority to assign career personnel to volunteer stations, inspect the stations and transfer equipment to and from them is another goal. The $2 million in the department's budget for volunteer companies may be withheld if the contract is violated.

Mr. Halford, who was born in Baltimore, moved with his family to Howard County and then Anne Arundel County. He graduated from Glen Burnie High School in 1971 and married his high school sweetheart in 1974.

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