Md. fire marshal leaving office after nearly 20 years

Gabriele, appointed in '82, to be state police liaison

July 11, 2001|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

After nearly two decades as Maryland's fire marshal, the talk was Rocco J. Gabriele would leave office only one of two ways - ousted by a major political coup or carried out.

But as long as Democrats kept getting elected governor and he maintained his good health, Gabriele was content to keep his job. Even at age 68, he never saw leaving his post as an option.

Then, the unexpected happened: He got an offer that caught his attention.

Gabriele will step down today to pursue his new position as senior staff liaison to the state police colonel, coordinating the state's weapons of mass destruction program and working with legislators, fire associations and the fire marshal's office, which falls under the state police umbrella.

Until last month, when he accepted the offer, no one - including Gabriele - knew that anything other than being the state's top fire official would interest him.

"We knew he couldn't be the fire marshal forever," said Roger Steger, former president of the Maryland State Firemen's Association. "But it kind of seemed like it."

Only one other fire marshal in the United States has a longer tenure than Gabriele, who has held the position since 1982. He has earned the favor and the endorsement of governors from Harry R. Hughes to Parris N. Glendening, lasting longer than nearly any appointee in the state.

His replacement, William E. Barnard, begins his six-year term today, after being selected from dozens of applicants.

Steven T. Edwards, director of the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute, has worked with Barnard and Gabriele. "What we have here is one outstanding fire marshal being replaced by an outstanding candidate," he said.

Although Gabriele didn't have a say in who his successor would be, he said he would have hired Barnard.

In fact, he once did hire Barnard, a former Prince George's County fire marshal. Gabriele put Barnard in charge of an arson prevention grant for the state fire marshal's office. Then, Barnard was hired by the governor's office as a special assistant to work with the emergency and public safety department and agencies.

"He did a hell of a job," Gabriele said of Barnard. "He's a real professional."

Like Gabriele, who has been a volunteer at the Rosedale fire station since 1952, Barnard has been hanging around firehouses since he was 12 years old.

He spent a few years in the District of Columbia National Guard as a military police officer and a few years at community college. But Barnard has spent most of his life - 27 of his 50 years - at the Prince George's County Fire Department, becoming a volunteer at the Hyattsville station in 1968, when he was 18 years old, and retiring after 24 years of career service as a deputy fire chief.

Somewhere between the fire alarms and the emergency pages, Barnard found time to watch his son play sports, to ski and to dance with his wife. Barnard and his wife of 29 years, the former Judy Laudenschlager, live in Riva. They have one son, Kenneth, 22, who attends college in South Carolina.

"I enjoy helping people," Barnard said. "I didn't want to be stuck behind a desk doing the same thing every day. With this work, it's always something different."

After progressing through the ranks as a firefighter and sergeant in Prince George's, Barnard worked in training, administration and special operations. When he became commander of the bureau in the late 1980s, he was part of the team that helped draft current building codes that require sprinklers in public buildings and new houses.

Barnard said that's when he saw what government could do. For example, he said, one fire at an apartment building in Laurel caused nearly $1 million damage and displaced dozens of families. After sprinklers were installed, a fire there two years later caused only $5,000 damage and displaced no one.

"You can see the significant impact," Barnard said.

Although the state Fire Prevention Commission chooses three top candidates for the position and the state police colonel makes the official appointment, the choice must have the support of the governor.

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