Joseph Herr's first year as Howard County Fire and Rescue chief featured more scene changes and plot twists than a made-for-TV movie.
It was filled with the usual adjustments to a new job and punctuated by a series of unexpected dramas - everything from the uncertainty of Sept. 11 to anthrax scares to a devastating tornado.
"I saw things this year that I never thought I'd see in my lifetime," Herr said in an interview this week marking his first anniversary as chief.
Herr's tenure started with a simple but sweeping plan of reorganization.
After about eight months of study, Herr switched firefighters and paramedics from station-based assignments to company-based assignments. That change reduced the number of captains, increased the number of battalion chiefs and assigned one driver permanently to each piece of equipment.
Lt. Michael Rund, president of Howard County Professional Firefighters Association, said he appreciates Herr's recognition of the importance of keeping a full staff. He said Herr identified how many people it takes to keep a minimum of three firefighters on each engine, calculated the dollar-amount tied to giving enough people overtime to reach that staffing level and asked the county for that money.
"He explained to the county executive how we have to pay overtime to keep staffing levels up and sold it to them that way," Rund said.
After Herr's presentation early this year, the county infused the Department of Fire and Rescue Services' overtime budget with an extra $350,000, bringing its total for overtime to more than $1.2 million.
Pleased overall with his first year as chief, Herr is quick to point out the few things he would do differently.
"I wouldn't have started the training class when I did," he said.
The 18-member recruit class that began in July and will graduate Dec. 14 squeezed the department's resources during the summer, a season when it is tough to keep staffing levels at full strength. Training pulls another few firefighters away from stations to classrooms.
Herr said that in the future he will try to start classes only after the summer vacation season ends. "I'll be more careful with the timing next time," he said. "That was definitely a learning experience."
Most of Herr's supporting cast has given him a thumbs-up for his work this year.
"He and I work very well together," said Rund, who has been union president for more than three years. He said he talks much more frequently with Herr than he did with former Chief Jim Heller.
David McDonald, the county executive's appointee to the Fire Board, which interviewed fire chief candidates, said Herr's first year has proved he is "a seasoned professional - exactly what we were looking for in a fire chief."
"It's one thing to see that in terms of credentials, but it's another to see him in action," McDonald said.
Herr's role as a county leader was solidified Sept. 11, a day that, ironically, began with Herr going to a Leadership Howard County meeting.
When hijacked planes crashed into the World Trade Center towers, Herr excused himself from the meeting and activated the county's Emergency Operations Center (EOC) - something only he and County Executive James N. Robey have the authority to do.
"All of my training told me that these were terrorist attacks, and they were not going to stop," Herr recalls thinking that morning.
During his 10-minute drive to the EOC, Herr remembers hearing radio reports of numerous car bombs. Though they later proved untrue, he feared the county's location near Washington would make it susceptible to attacks.
The county braced for the worst, but the day passed without incident. Even so, the number of on-duty paramedics and firefighters nearly tripled to 178 within the first two hours after the attacks.
"I think that says a lot about the quality of people in this department," he said. "What happened here reflected the mood of the whole country."
Firefighters organized a "Fill the Boot" campaign the weekend of Sept. 21 that raised nearly $150,000 for families of victims of the attacks.
"Everyone really came together," Herr said. "That was really an emotional high for the department."
It was followed by a devastating blow. Less than 24 hours later, a tornado touched down at the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute in College Park, killing Clarksville Volunteer Chief F. Patrick Marlatt's two daughters.
"I'll never forget it," Herr said about being paged with the news.
Herr said he tries to visit one of the county's 11 fire stations every day and that he enjoys talking with firefighters more than any other aspect of his job. Although he doesn't claim to know everyone in the department - about 300 career firefighters and as many as 650 volunteers - Herr said he has "built trust and credibility with the stakeholders in the department."
Ellicott City Volunteer Chief John J. Klein, a 42-year veteran of the department, said he thinks most firefighters like and respect Herr.
"He's a lot like me, in some ways," Klein said. "He's a go-getter and sometimes swings before he thinks about what he's doing, but he always backs up what he says."
While he was getting to know everyone, Herr also was putting down roots in the county. He stayed at Waterford Farm in Brookville for six months while his family packed up their house in Calvert County.
Later, the Herrs put their things into storage and lived in an in Ellicott City apartment while their Autumn View house was completed.
The new house is appropriate for a fire chief: Herr had it outfitted with an indoor emergency sprinkler system. "The contractors had no idea what I was talking about. They thought I meant lawn sprinklers," he said.
But with the sprinkler system in place and a year as chief under his belt, Herr said feels at home in Howard County.
"This is the first time in over a year that all of my clothes have been in the same location," he said. "It's my home now."