Fire chief steps aside after climb

Heller started late, led through change

June 11, 2000|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

James E. "Jimmy" Heller smiles a lot in these last days before his retirement, but then he always was a good-natured guy.

The white-haired, soft-spoken 64-year-old Howard County fire chief dresses casually most Fridays, and he doesn't mind his friends and colleagues calling him "Jimmy" instead of "Chief."

"I don't take myself too seriously. The people who need to know who I am know who I am," he said, smiling as Battalion Chief Jeff Kinggreeted him informally in the county's 3-year-old Ellicott City Fire Station next to U.S. 29.

Heller's last day is June 30, when Chief Deputy EdgarG. Shillingis to take over as acting fire chief. The county fire board will recommend three possible replacements later in the summer, and County Executive James N. Robey will make the final choice.

"He's a very laid-back, caring individual. He's presided over a slowly changing system in which the number of paid fire- fighters grows slowly compared to the volunteers," Robey said.

A former aviation industry engineer, Heller slid into firefighting through volunteer stints in Dundalk and Rosedale in eastern Baltimore County, where his family moved after he graduated from Mount St. Joseph High School in 1953. After marrying, he and his wife, Liz, moved to Lisbon in western Howard in 1967, where they raised three children and still live.

Heller's career took a different track than that of the traditional rough-around-the-edges "smoke eater" who rises through the ranks. He didn't become a paid firefighter until age 38, in 1974, starting as a training officer.

Some people hold that against the chief, said King, but Heller doesn't let it bother him. They tend to be the same people who think firefighting is the real deal and emergency medical services should command a lesser status.

"There's still a mentality that `I didn't come here to run medical services, I came to put out fires,'" Heller said.

But "fires are few and far between" these days, he said, and 72 percent of the 23,000 calls the county received last year were for medical emergencies. With the aging of baby boomers, emergency medicine is the future for fire departments, he said. "It's going to continue to grow."

Nearly half of medical calls involve people older than 50. In the next few years, he predicts, paramedics might begin treating minor injuries so that people would not need to visit a hospital.

Despite his background, Heller loves to "play in red stuff [fire]" as much as anybody, and he has the emotional scars to prove it.

He remembers well, he said, the two Lisbon volunteers who died in July 1969 when their engine crashed on a wet roadway after a thunderstorm as they rushed to a barn fire. They were among five volunteers riding on the back step when the truck skidded into a tree.

"I'll never forget that. That's when I started my crusade to get people off the back step," he said. Such moments -- the first fatal fire, a child killed in a car accident, the bottled gas truck that blew up on U.S. 40 West -- stick in his mind, Heller said, but they're not the things that matter most to him. "You get an adrenaline rush," he said, and anybody who denies that isn't being honest. But those memories aren't the main reason he made a career of fire service.

"I get that letter from Mrs. Smith whose husband died last week and she's pouring her heart out to thank us for trying the save him," Heller said. "Letters like that make the greatest impact on me. What that tells me is we're doing our jobs."

And the basic job hasn't changed since he first volunteered in the 1960s, he said.

Howard County was all farms in those days, before Columbia and Interstate 70. In 1974, when Heller joined the paid department, the county had 40 paid firefighters and paramedics were a new phenomenon.

"When you had a house fire, you still used water and it was grunt work," he said.

With the budget year that begins the day after he retires, Howard's force will go over the 300-employee mark, not counting the 453 volunteers (175 active) who run six of the county's 11 fire stations.

As part of his managerial approach, Heller has tried to talk regularly with groups representing cultural and racial minorities on the force, to keep lines of communications open, he said.

The Howard Fire Department has 33 black male and three black female firefighters, including one battalion chief and two captains. There are 36 white women, 192 white men and seven members of other ethnic backgrounds.

A friendly man, Heller "is very calm. He would think things through. He's very analytical," said Janet Robey, the county executive's wife and Heller's longtime secretary before she retired.

He and his wife spend lots of time talking, he said. "She can tell when I've had a bad day."

Liz Heller helped him decide to apply for the chief's job in 1993, when he was chief deputy. He applied on the last possible day. "I figured if I didn't, I'd be training the new person," he said.

After his retirement dinner July 11, he plans to see more of his young grandchildren, ages 2 and 5, and working on his model train collection.

"I've spent a lot of time away from my family," he said.

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