J. Austin Deitz, 90, Balto. Co. fire chief

April 16, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

J. Austin Deitz, a 38-year veteran and retired chief of the Baltimore County Fire Department, died of heart failure Sunday at his Granite home. He was 90.

"Our fire department has lost one of its finest leaders and supporters," said Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who knew him over many years in public office. "The contributions that Chief Deitz made during his tenure are still evident in the high standard of firefighting and emergency medical care that we provide today. He will be fondly remembered."

Chief Deitz was born and raised in a log cabin in the rural western Baltimore County community of Granite, where his father farmed for a living. He attended Randallstown High School for two years, and later earned his high school equivalency degree.

In 1928, he went to work as a laborer and truck driver for the county roads department. He became a county firefighter in 1937 and was assigned to the department's Woodlawn station.

Chief Deitz had a rapid rise through the department, with promotions to captain in 1946, commander of the old training station in 1951, battalion chief of the Western District in 1953 and deputy chief of fire suppression in 1959.

After Chief Winfield H. Wineholt retired in 1968, Chief Deitz was named his successor by then-County Executive Dale Anderson.

One of his early successes was coordinating the paid force with the county's many volunteer firefighters, into what he termed a "well-oiled machine."

He also instituted a rigorous 10-week training program in the field and classroom that prepared firefighters for any type of blaze. Chief Deitz also established sophisticated training programs for emergency medical technicians, or paramedics, that substantially increased survival rates for victims.

He also successfully integrated the county's emergency medical response system with the Maryland Shock Trauma Center and Maryland State Police fleet of MedEvac helicopters.

"He was a very progressive fire chief, and this was one of the primary things he accomplished during the 1970s," said Elwood H. Banister, who retired in 1994 after four years as fire chief and 38 years in the department. "He saw a need to expand emergency medical services and did it."

Chief Deitz also stepped up public fire safety education programs as well as vigorous code enforcement and inspection, and sought to improve the public perception of firefighters.

"The fireman has a hard reputation to live down," he told The Evening Sun in 1968. "Many citizens still picture the average paid fireman as sitting around the stationhouse playing cards and waiting for the next house to go up in flames.

"Nowadays, the men are kept pretty busy most of the day either cleaning equipment, training, or laying out plans of attack in case of fires in some of the shopping centers or large factories here in the county."

As the population of Baltimore County increased, Chief Deitz made sure his department kept up with the demand by adding fire stations as well as up-to-date fire equipment.

"He really was a firefighters' chief and always looked out for his personnel. He also never let tradition stand in the way of progress. He always had a good focus," said Chief Banister, who described him as "an easy man to work for" who never "second-guessed or overshadowed those working the fire ground."

He added, "Chief Deitz had confidence in his people."

Donald T. Warren, who was second-in-command of the department, recalled Chief Deitz's temperament.

"He was always steady, unflappable and cool. You never heard any yelling from him," Mr. Warren said. "He knew all about not only firefighting but administration. He was a good and reliable individual who tried to be helpful to everyone."

"He was very down-to-earth and had lots of common sense and integrity," said his wife of 31 years, the former Joanne Souris Poletis, a retired county purchasing agent.

Chief Deitz's first wife, the former Marjorie Long, whom he married in 1932, died in 1966.

Chief Deitz, who retired in 1975, was inducted last year into the Baltimore County Firemen's Association Hall of Fame. He was also a member of Boumi Temple and Freedom Lodge of the Masons.

An avid waterman, he built The Misty, a classic 42-foot Eastern Shore deadrise-style fishing boat, in the 1960s with assistance from a brother and a shipwright. For many years, he enjoyed sailing and fishing on the Chesapeake Bay.

He also liked growing vegetables and flowers on the grounds of his 4-acre home in Granite.

He was a longtime member of Granite Presbyterian Church.

Services with full departmental honors will be held at 11 a.m. today at Towson Presbyterian Church, 400 W. Chesapeake Ave.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Wayne Deitz of Granite; a daughter, Alma Dibble of Glen Rock, Pa.; a stepson, Chris Poletis of Arbaz, Switzerland; two stepdaughters, Pamela Nopulos of Canton and Aritee Bond of Glyndon; a brother, William Deitz of Granite; 12 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

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