New chief a `strong, articulate leader'

Blackwell, 52, to bring passion and experience to Arundel Fire Department

Leaving Prince George's post

August 09, 2004|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

The fire engine turned onto the 1100 block of W. Douglas St. and Ronald D. Blackwell saw the column of smoke rising before him.

"I thought the whole block was on fire," he said, remembering his first call as a firefighter in Wichita, Kan.

Flames hadn't consumed the block, just a car that the crew extinguished in a few moments. But the rush in Blackwell's gut was unmistakable.

"Can we do that again?" he thought.

After 29 years of doing it again, Blackwell, the fire chief of Prince George's County, is about to take the helm of neighboring Anne Arundel's department. The 52-year-old will be the county's first black fire chief.

The new job follows three years of leading an even larger department in Prince George's County through counterterrorism efforts, internal disputes and a search for a serial arsonist.

Those varied, often stressful, experiences have never killed the wide-eyed enthusiasm Blackwell felt during that first shift, he said in an interview last week. "I love it all," he said.

County Executive Janet S. Owens said Blackwell's mix of experience and enthusiasm won her over in the first half-hour of their first meeting, about a month ago. She wasted little time wooing the graying Midwesterner with the easy laugh and Popeye-like forearms to take over a department troubled by overtime spending and the forced resignation of its last chief, Roger C. Simonds.

Several who worked with Blackwell in Prince George's said Owens' instincts were dead-on. Blackwell starts Aug. 23.

"I think she called getting him a coup, and that's about right," said Prince George's County fire spokesman Mark Brady. "You can't do a whole lot better."

Thomas W. Carr Jr., fire chief in neighboring Montgomery County, called Blackwell a "strong, articulate leader."

"Most important, I think he focuses on taking care of the people he's responsible for," Carr said.

That's not to say Blackwell has been beloved at every turn. Volunteer firefighters, who make up almost three-quarters of the Prince George's force, issued a vote of no-confidence in him less than a year after he became chief. They said he was siding with the county's professional firefighters in a bitter turf war.

But much of that tension has dissipated, said Jay Tucker, president of the Prince George's County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association.

"He's done the best job he could do," Tucker said of Blackwell. "We've been able to work out a lot of issues just by sitting down at the table."

When asked Blackwell's best quality, Tucker said, "He wants to hear what the problems are. He takes the time and looks into things before a decision comes out."

Lifetime dream

Born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., Blackwell enjoyed watching firetrucks roll down his block or walking to the local fire station, where the men would let him put air in his bicycle tires or would buy him a soda. One day, as he waved at a passing truck, he saw a black firefighter waving back. "I remember thinking, `I could do that,'" he said.

An ambition was born. Sure, he would spout a line about wanting to be president to his mother and his teachers, but really, he wanted to be a firefighter.

At 18, he entered the Air Force and began fire training. He worked an airplane crash in Wyoming, a building fire in Okinawa, Japan, and spent a year in Texas waiting for fires that never happened. But until he took a job with the Wichita Fire Department, he rarely experienced the feeling he would learn to love most.

"It's that sense of accomplishment and responsibility that you feel when you've seen people on the worst day of their lives and know that you somehow had a positive impact," said Blackwell, who has bachelor's and master's degrees in education from Wichita State University.

After 10 years battling fires, Blackwell entered the administrative ranks; he was deputy chief of Wichita's department for nine years. He figured he was in line to be chief.

Bigger challenges

But the city of 300,000 had a longtime chief who wasn't going anywhere, so when a deputy chief's job opened in Prince George's, Blackwell applied and got it. He and his wife of 28 years, Diane, and three children moved to Bowie. Two years later, then-County Executive Wayne K. Curry offered him the top job. He was to be sworn in before rows of dignitaries and his mother, who had flown in for the big day, Sept. 11, 2001.

Instead, Blackwell walked into Curry's office that morning and saw the Pentagon burning on television. Suddenly, he had to manage a crisis, calling in every off-duty officer and dispatching crews to the scene of the attack. He only had time for a no-frills swearing in two days later.

Things haven't slowed down since. Next came the nasty battle between the county's 600 paid firefighters and its 1,500 volunteers. The professionals were pressuring union members from other jurisdictions not to volunteer in the county, saying volunteer companies amounted to rival organizations.

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