Baltimore Co. hires Fire Department chief Improved racial relations to be key goal for O'Neill

October 03, 1997|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore County Fire Department is getting its third new chief in less than two years, as Paul H. Reincke returns to the ranks of the retired to make way for a younger man.

John F. O'Neill, 50, a deputy chief for more than a decade and a county firefighter since 1972, will succeed Reincke next month -- with the expected approval of the County Council. The job carries an annual salary of $103,000.

O'Neill, whose promotion was announced yesterday by County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger, said that better racial relations among the department's 1,200 emergency personnel will be a priority.

"First, we're about to begin a fair practices course for the upper level officers and senior staff," he said, adding that the county will then "go back into the stations" for sensitivity training throughout the department.

"We need to come into the '90s and the 2000s," O'Neill said, referring to recent tensions over an incident at the Towson station in which a black firefighter found a rope shaped like a noose in his gear. A white firefighter returned to work Tuesday after a month-long suspension prompted by the incident.

Other priorities, O'Neill said, include new fire academy facilities, restructuring the administration and addressing widespread discontent in the department over salaries that trail those of county police officers.

Reincke, who will celebrate his 68th birthday this month, said he is looking forward to his retirement Nov. 1 -- his second from the department.

Reincke also was chief from 1975 to 1990. He returned in July 1996 at the request of Ruppersberger after the forced resignation of Allen A. Thomason, a former San Diego assistant chief, after less than a year in charge of the county department.

"I'm going back to doing what I was happily doing for 5 1/2 years," Reincke said yesterday, adding that he discussed the move with Ruppersberger a month ago.

Reincke noted that his mission was intended to temporary -- namely, to return calm to the department by reducing factionalism and to help find a permanent chief. Although he had pledged to remain on the job through next year's elections, Reincke said yesterday that O'Neill was his clear choice for the job and that waiting would only build internal tensions again.

Ruppersberger said he agreed with Reincke's choice of O'Neill, who lives in Timonium with his wife, Patricia. They have two daughters, ages 22 and 26.

"He has the people skills and the expert knowledge of the department," Ruppersberger said, adding that a priority is giving the department strong leadership at a time when emergency medical calls increasingly outnumber fire calls and money is tight.

No council opposition is expected, Ruppersberger aides said after speaking to all of the members yesterday.

"I think it's a great choice," said Council Chairman Joseph Bartenfelder, a Fullerton Democrat. He noted that O'Neill works well with volunteers as well as paid personnel -- an important factor in a county with about 2,000 volunteer firefighters.

The choice of O'Neill also won praise from county firefighters union President Kevin B. O'Connor and James Artis, president of the black firefighters' Guardian Knights organization.

"He's been the only senior person involved with fair practices since day one," Artis said. "We wish him the best of luck."

Pub Date: 10/03/97

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