Search is on for an Arundel fire chief

Owens replaces Simonds temporarily with Phillips, the county health officer

March 23, 2004|By Ryan Davis and Julie Bykowicz | Ryan Davis and Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens has begun a statewide search for a new fire chief, but her lame-duck status may severely limit the applicants, industry experts said yesterday.

As the search started, ousted Chief Roger C. Simonds began his final two weeks - and issued his first public statement since the county executive asked for his resignation Friday.

"While I may have been portrayed as a renegade, I have seen my position as a strong leader representing the best interest of the men and women of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department and the citizens of Anne Arundel County," he said in a written statement.

Simonds will be replaced by Acting Fire Chief Frances B. Phillips, who has never worked in fire service but has been the county's health officer for the past decade. Phillips said yesterday that she has not ruled herself out as a candidate to take the job permanently.

Phillips' appointment comes at a crucial time for the 600-firefighter department. In August, after the publication of articles in The Sun about the department's soaring overtime tab and questionable uses of overtime money, Owens appointed a task force to study the department's spending and its management.

The task force and the county auditor have recommended hiring more firefighters and implementing stronger management controls. Any changes for fiscal year 2005 would need to be ready in just over a month, when the budget is introduced.

"I don't think it's a time anyone can just keep a seat warm," Phillips said yesterday. "I'm going to need a lot of input. Certainly Ms. Owens has a course that she has in mind."

Owens, who was in New York on county business yesterday, has refused to speak publicly since ousting Simonds. As scrutiny of Simonds grew over the past several months, he expressed increasing frustration with the department's staffing levels.

Owens, who had publicly stood by her chief, asked for his resignation during a meeting Friday, just days after Simonds told an international accreditation agency that the Fire Department was too unstable and fiscally troubled to seek reaccreditation. It was the most recent instance where county officials believed he had spoken out of turn.

In his statement yesterday, Simonds, who is known as the father of the county's emergency services system, thanked Owens and listed his accomplishments during his five years as chief. They include enhancements to firefighter training, developing an emergency management plan, purchasing modern equipment for firefighters and buying a fireboat for the county.

He also defended his use of overtime money to complete an unauthorized warehouse renovation - a move that has been roundly criticized.

Simonds' ouster and the appointment of Phillips, a manager who says she is trusted by Owens, clears the way for change within the nearly 40-year-old department, observers said yesterday.

Former County Auditor Joseph A. Novotny, a task force member, said Simonds was resistant to some of the task force recommendations, such as reconfiguring the county's paramedic service.

"It seemed like he was fighting too much," Novotny said.

Phillips said she expects to hold the Fire Department's top job for at least 90 days. County law limits her to six months in the job unless she takes it on a permanent basis, she said. She said Owens' search will be "at least statewide."

Owens spokesman Matt Diehl said officials still were deciding yesterday where to advertise the job.

Because the county fire chief serves at the pleasure of the county executive, national fire experts said Owens is likely to find that many candidates have a simple question: "How much longer will you be in office?"

Her answer - that term limits will force her out in 2006 - will deter some applicants, said Garry Briese, the executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, based in Fairfax, Va.

"Most people don't look to spend 2 1/2 years in a position," Briese said. "It would absolutely limit the applicant pool."

Phillips - while saying she has not yet decided to apply - stressed that she is familiar with managing large organizations that protect the health of Anne Arundel residents.

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