Ex-fire chief gets ready to move on

Halford, moving to Mo., looks back on career

May 30, 1999|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Growing up in Glen Burnie, Stephen D. Halford wanted desperately to be a police officer, but he was too short. He was a 5-foot-4-inch teen, and state police required 5 feet 10 inches and county police required 5 feet 8 inches.

No way. So he thought about firefighting. But the county fire department's height minimum was 5 feet 6 inches, and the vertically challenged Halford had trouble making that.

Determined, he became a volunteer firefighter -- and worked on the problem.

"I was trying to think of things I could do for that day to be taller," Halford said. "I went to see a chiropractor. At the firehouse, I would hang from the bars to stretch myself."

He never grew, but the county relaxed the rules, and in 1973, he was hired. He had been a volunteer for three years.

Twenty-one years later, in 1994, he became the first firefighter to scale all the ranks of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department to become chief. In his five years as chief, he modeled the department after his multi-ranked career, putting volunteer and professional firefighters on more equal footing. Next week, he begins a new job, fire chief in Clayton, Mo., near St. Louis, leaving a more sophisticated and better-trained department in Anne Arundel County.

Under Halford, who retired from the department in April, Anne Arundel became the first department in the nation to make volunteers and professional staffs meet the same national standards of accreditation, and firefighters and emergency medical technicians now cross-train in each others' duties. The department has become one of 14 in the nation and the first in Maryland to be accredited by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, a global industry group.

As chief, he saw emergency medical services as key to the future of the fire department. But in reforming the department, Halford ran up against traditionalists who preferred the fire suppression role to any other.

"When I was made chief, I set out an agenda and I accomplished it," said Halford, 45. "I resent at times being resented for making changes, but that's something I had to accept."

Among the most publicly criticized decisions of his tenure was the Handle-First Emergency policy, which called for firefighters, instead of paramedics, to transport victims in most cases. In 1997, he also changed the department's name from fire department to EMS/Fire/Rescue.

"We did voice our displeasure" about the name change, said James H. Edwards, president of International Association of Firefighters, Local 1563. "The fire department really is steeped in a lot of tradition."

So is Halford, in many ways. Born in Elkridge in 1953, he was raised in Glen Burnie. His father was a Baltimore police officer.

Halford married his high school sweetheart and bought a home in Glen Burnie. From the time they had their first child in 1976 until last year, he was the sole breadwinner in his family that now includes wife, Linda, 45, sons Brian and Scott, 22 and 19, and daughter Cheryl, 17.

Soon after he was hired by the county, he developed cancer.

Doctors removed a salivary gland, muscle, tissue and lymph nodes from his neck, leaving him with a wide scar on the left side, no feeling from his ear to his shoulder and an indentation that makes the left side of his jaw look perpetually swollen.

Fighting fires, a hero-kind of job, gave him a rush, but as smoke detectors and public safety education reduced the number and severity of fires, Halford rose through the ranks, learned more about medical services and was trained as an emergency medical technician.

His Handle First Emergency policy reflected his medical training, calling for firefighters, who were needed for fire suppression only about 20 percent of the time, to respond first to emergencies, provide basic life support and transport patients with nonlife-threatening emergencies to the hospital. The practice leaves paramedics, with more extensive advanced life support training, available for more serious emergencies.

Critics said the new policy would leave stations undermanned and expose neighborhoods covered by those stations to fires. Halford said he wrangled with the decision extensively, but decided to push for change.

Some union members considered a vote of no-confidence in the chief.

"Some people felt Halford wasn't doing a good job," Edwards said, "that he should do more jumping up and down on [then-Executive John G.] Gary's desk, saying we need more firefighters, we need more paramedics."

But, said Halford, the gamble paid off. Firefighters now respond in ambulances as a matter of routine. And unlike the name change, it's a policy the new chief, Roger C. Simonds, hasn't rescinded.

"I would have hated myself if I had not tried," Halford said. "Unless you question how you're doing business, how can you improve? Our citizens want extraordinary service at the best possible price."

That has meant little increase in staffing. Only about 15 new people have been hired in the plast five years, Halford said.

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