Arundel executive names new fire chief

He's leader of department in Prince George's County

August 03, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

Anne Arundel County Executive Janet S. Owens has hired Ronald D. Blackwell, the fire chief of neighboring Prince George's County, to take over a department shaken by an overtime controversy and the recent ouster of its chief.

Blackwell, 52, who has led the Prince George's department for three years, will become Anne Arundel's first black fire chief.

"I'm really excited about this," Owens said in a telephone interview from Maine, where she is vacationing. "I really wanted somebody who had managed a large, urban fire department, because our county is so complex. I'm just extremely impressed with his manner, his wisdom and his knowledge of the fire service."

Blackwell's hiring comes four months after former Chief Roger C. Simonds, an Owens appointee and a veteran of more than three decades, was forced to resign under criticism of his management practices and his department's soaring overtime tab. Frances B. Phillips has served as interim chief since April but did not want the job permanently; she will return to her prior job as health director.

Blackwell said that despite the department's troubles over the past year, he is not entering as a reformer. "I see myself more as someone who is willing to work with anyone and everyone to provide quality service to the county," he said.

Before becoming Prince George's chief, Blackwell served as a deputy chief there and in Wichita, Kan., where he worked for 23 years.

The Kansas native is perhaps best known as the public face of a task force that has searched for an arsonist linked to more than 30 fires in the Washington area over the past year. The "serial arsonist" remains at large, but Prince George's officials said Blackwell brought innovative ideas to the search.

"He's going to be sorely missed," said Vernon Herron, public safety director for Prince George's County. Herron said Blackwell also led an effort to put smoke detectors in every home in the county and had a compassionate touch with the families of injured firefighters.

Blackwell will lead a department that has faced criticism for its lack of minority recruiting over the years. As of June, the department was about 4 percent black; the county population is about 14 percent black.

The lack of diversity in fire departments has emerged recently as an issue in the Baltimore metropolitan area, with the Baltimore City and Annapolis departments facing charges of imbalanced hiring.

"I think it's a sign that county government is changing and becoming more and more inclusive," said Carl Snowden, an aide to Owens and a longtime Anne Arundel civil rights activist. "It says quite clearly that this is a welcoming environment."

Blackwell said he had not heard of past criticisms about minority hiring but said, "If my involvement helps increase diversity in the department, that's something I'll be very proud of."

County firefighter representatives said they do not know much about Blackwell but are eager to have a permanent leader. "Once he gets here, we can roll up our sleeves and start working on the issues that an interim chief couldn't deal with," said Keith Wright, president of the county firefighters' union. Wright said the county must recruit and retain more paramedics and fill open positions, especially in northern Anne Arundel.

Owens said she contacted Blackwell about a month ago after a fellow guest at a wedding recommended him. She said she had not been satisfied with the 25 to 30 resumes turned up by a three-month national search.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.