Search for fire chief begins

County health officer named to post temporarily

Ousted Simonds defends himself

Owens' lame-duck status seen as limiting applicants

Anne Arundel

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 might 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 a decade. Phillips said yesterday that she has not ruled herself out as a candidate to take the job permanently.

Phillips was appointed 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 costs 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 a little more than a month, when the budget will be 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 on the topic since ousting Simonds. As scrutiny of Simonds grew over the past several months, he expressed increasing frustration with the department's staffing.

Owens, who had publicly stood by her chief, asked for his resignation during a meeting Friday, 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 in which county officials think he spoke 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 improving 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's 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 will wonder how much longer she will 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, who said she has not decided whether to apply, stressed that she is familiar with managing large organizations that protect the health of Anne Arundel residents. The county Health Department has a $46 million annual budget. The Fire Department's is $67 million.

The former emergency room nursing supervisor said she has worked closely with the Fire Department, particularly during the anthrax scares after Sept. 11, 2001. But she said she isn't an expert in firefighting.

"It's going to be a crash course," she said.

Robert J. Dvorak, a retired county official, stepped into a similar position in 1983. He replaced Chief Harry Klasmeier, who was pushed toward retirement by County Executive O. James Lighthizer after nearly two decades as head of the department.

Dvorak has an accounting background and held numerous jobs over a long career, but he knew nearly nothing about fire service when he stepped into the job, he said. Phillips can expect that firefighters will "view her as the outsider," he said.

Dvorak recalled that when he took over, he told the deputy chiefs to concentrate on fighting fires while he worked to get them the resources they needed.

"You can be a manager and a leader," he said, "without being an expert in the specific field you're working in."

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