Baltimore officials launched a nationwide search yesterday to replace outgoing Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr. but said they will consider applicants from inside the department.
"He will be a very tough act to follow," Mayor Martin O'Malley said at his weekly City Hall news conference, when he announced that Williams will retire next month.
O'Malley, with Williams at his side, said he will use members of his public safety transition team - made up of union and law enforcement officials - to review applicants.
"When men and women are going out and risking their lives, you can't skimp on leadership," he said.
The City Council will have to confirm O'Malley's nominee.
Two names Williams mentioned yesterday as potential applicants were Assistant Chiefs Carl E. McDonald and Michael E. Dalton. McDonald, assistant fire chief of operations, will be acting chief during the transition, as recommended by Williams. Both Dalton and McDonald declined to comment yesterday.
Other firefighters said they hope William's replacement opposes further staff reductions and station closings. Closures that O'Malley ordered last year generated considerable criticism from firefighters and their union leaders, who often complained that lives were being jeopardized to save money.
"We just hope whoever comes in is going to be fair," said Fire Lt. Thurman Pugh, president of the Vulcan Blazers, a group of black firefighters. Pugh said he has no candidate for chief in mind, but added: "We hope we can get back on the upswing and get the Fire Department back on the standing it was before."
O'Malley's advisory committee recommended the closures and began to restructure the department. Money saved by the moves was used to boost the department's medical side, which is busier than fire suppression.
"We have less people, sure," Williams said. "But we have less fires. The record speaks for itself. There has never been a case where we have missed a fire. We have lost no lives due to these cutbacks."
Williams, 69, became one of the city's first African-American firefighters in 1954, rose through the ranks and was named fire chief in 1992. He broke away several times to work in other departments, including transportation and public works.
He oversaw the modernizing of the Fire Department and emphasized fire protection. But he also led the agency through years of tight budgets, cutbacks and firehouse closures.
Fire deaths, which numbered about 40 a year when he took over as chief, dropped to 19 in 1999, a record low since the information was first tracked in 1938.
Yesterday, O'Malley hailed Williams as a strong, innovative leader who led in integrating the department and making Baltimore safer.
"Even in a city that was shrinking in population, in a department that also was shrinking in size and strength, he managed to reduce fire deaths by record numbers and reduce fires in half," O'Malley said.
Joking about changes that O'Malley ordered and Williams implemented, O'Malley said Williams might turn to his other passion, cooking, and open a restaurant in one of the shuttered fire stations.
Williams said he will use his time off to golf and cook. Through this week, he has continued responding to fires - the latest on Tuesday when eight firefighters were injured when a roof collapsed in a vacant rowhouse blaze.