A faint, satisfied smile played across Howard County Fire and Rescue Chief Joseph Herr's lips as he thumbed through the pages of a yellow legal pad filled with flow charts and math equations scribbled in red, black and blue ink.
"This was the beginning," he said. "I just grabbed a pen and started plotting it all out, started adding and subtracting."
After eight months as chief, Herr is seeing his doodles take shape in the form of a radical reorganization of Howard County Fire and Rescue Services that is aimed at producing more cohesive training, more consistent firefighting teams and clearer lines of authority.
The changes, Herr said in a recent interview, are needed to reflect the evolution of an organization that has grown by about 10 career firefighters a year since 1990, resulting in the current 287 uniformed career firefighters.
What began as a volunteer department in the late 1880s has become a combination of volunteers and career firefighters. The number of operational volunteers - volunteer firefighters who answer calls - has remained at 175 to 200 for more than a decade.
Among Herr's moves have been a reduction in the number of captains from 38 to 29, an increase in the number of battalion chiefs from seven to 16, the assignment of one permanent driver for each piece of equipment, company-based assignments instead of station-based assignments and a bolstered administrative system.
With the reorganization a week old, Herr said he was "very happy with how it's all going."
Lt. Michael Rund, president of the county firefighters union, said the switch to the new system July 2 "seemed to go off without a hitch."
Herr said that to measure the reorganization's success, he is keeping his eye on response times and the number of firefighters who respond to each call.
The smaller number of captains means some firefighters will report to lieutenants during their shifts. The larger number of battalion chiefs results in more responsibility for those promoted from captain.
Herr said another effect of the additional battalion chief positions is more room for promotions within the department.
Company-based assignments mean more continuity because firefighters will be assigned to the same piece of equipment - such as a fire engine or an ambulance - each time they work.
The plan also created positions in the central office and doubled the size of the training staff.
Herr said he developed a plan after observing what went on at the station houses and listening to what people said.
"He took a set number of people and did the math and came up with a much better way to organize them," said Battalion Chief M. Sean Kelly, a department executive officer. "He's very much a numbers guy."
When a fire alarm goes off and the station bells clang, residents and rank-and-file firefighters take no notice of the changes in the department, senior fire officials said.
"These changes don't affect the essence of what we do," Herr said. "Our people have the ability to focus on their job and get it done."
Most firefighters have not noticed a difference in day-to-day operations, Rund said.
"There's a learning curve for everybody, but there just aren't any major changes in the way we do business," he said.
Rund said the new system's "lost depth in the field of supervisors ... may become an issue for leave availability."
The former system placed a captain in each station on every shift. In the new system, firefighters report to lieutenants on some shifts, although those lieutenants ultimately report to the captains of their companies. If lieutenants fill all nine leave spots available in one day, the department could be short on supervisors, Rund said.
Rund said of the switch from station-based assignments to company-based assignments that "lots of us had been after that change anyway."
Kelly said it might take some firefighters longer than others to get used to the changes.
"It's a major cultural change," Kelly said. "But once they make the adjustment, I think they're going to wonder why we hadn't done this earlier."
The fire department aims to have at least 57 career firefighters in uniform on each 24-hour shift. That goal was met during the first days of the new system.
That number stems from the nationally accepted minimum number of firefighters on each piece of equipment at all times: four on each of two large trucks, three on an engine and two in an ambulance.
Bill Coyle, co-founder of Howard County Citizens for Public Safety, a group that is an advocate and critic of police, fire and 911 services, emphasized the need to meet that minimum.
"In our opinion, the No. 1 priority for the fire department in Howard County is `four-three-two,'" he said, referring to the staffing goal. "Anything that comes close to jeopardizing that is not in the best interest in the county."
Coyle said he is concerned that the reorganization might sweep too many people from the field into administrative positions.
Kelly called that "a misrepresentation."
As the fire department awaits the arrival of about 20 firefighters who are in training until the end of the year, some hired into administrative positions will serve temporarily as uniformed firefighters.
"Our main goal is maintaining staffing in the field," Kelly said. "That's why we've detailed some people back to the field until we are able to fill those positions" with recruits.
Among the many positive aspects of the reorganization, Herr said, is that battalion chiefs are better able to focus on their jobs.
"Before, battalion chiefs were doing projects and watching over the battalion," he said. "People in the field need to be able to concentrate on the field.