Owens names new county fire chief

Blackwell, 52, has led Prince George's County department for 3 years

First black chief in Arundel

Kan. native takes over after ouster of Simonds, overtime dispute

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 but was enamored with Blackwell 30 minutes after meeting him. He is not the first top official she has wooed from a neighboring county. She hired Planning Director Joseph Rutter from Howard County in 2002.

Blackwell said his $120,000 salary will represent a slight raise but said Owens was the main factor attracting him to the new job.

"I was impressed by her openness and honesty," he said. "We had a very pointed conversation about the department."

Blackwell comes in on the heels of the overtime controversy that led to Simonds' departure.

Anne Arundel's overtime tab reached a record $7.2 million in fiscal 2003, causing the department to exceed its $66 million budget by at least $200,000. Per capita, the county spent more on firefighter overtime than any of Maryland's other suburban fire departments.

County officials and firefighters believe they solved many of the overtime problems by negotiating a contract this year that will add more than 70 positions to the department and tighten scheduling guidelines. Owens said Blackwell was aware of the overtime problems but said she did not expect him to introduce major reforms.

The Prince George's department ranked second in per capita overtime spending in fiscal 2003, handing out $11.60 per county resident compared with $14.70 in Anne Arundel. Baltimore County, by contrast, spent about $1 per person in overtime.

Blackwell said he followed news coverage of the overtime issue in Anne Arundel but does not yet have specific suggestions for decreasing overtime spending. "It's one of the issues that every fire chief has to face," he said. "Right now, I need an opportunity to get in and assess."

In Prince George's, Blackwell managed a career and volunteer department that served more than 800,000 residents, with 696 professional firefighters, 1,200 volunteers and a budget of more than $70 million.

In Anne Arundel, he will manage a department with 721 employees and a budget of $72 million. A task force that studied Anne Arundel's overtime spending recommended making better use of the county's volunteer firefighters.

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