Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has picked the former chief of the Lincoln, Neb. fire department to lead Baltimore's fire department as it undergoes sweeping changes.
Niles Ford, 48, a career firefighter who most recently was the manager of a small city in Georgia, will begin work Jan. 22, the mayor is expected to announce Monday. He will be paid $165,000.
"His resume has a really, really strong mix of managerial experience, fiscal stewardship, which is very important to me, and on-the-ground experience," Rawlings-Blake said Sunday. "He was the best fit. I really liked his sensibility and his leadership style."
If approved by the City Council, Ford will be taking over an agency that is undergoing some major changes. On Jan. 1, firefighters begin a new schedule that requires them to work 47.5 hours a week — the first such schedule change in decades — while eliminating 140 positions through attrition. The agency is also combating a spike in fire deaths: 21 this year, compared with last year's historic low of 12.
"It's a very exciting opportunity," Ford said of heading the city's fire department. "My vision is pretty broad-based. I want us to have the best fire department — a department that's second to none — with the best customer service while using technology to the best possible extent we can."
Ford was among a "handful" of finalists selected by search firm Gans, Gans & Associates, the mayor said. The Florida-based firm was paid $14,000 to conduct the search. His selection, over two deputies in the agency, drew some questions Sunday.
Fire officers union president Michael Campbell and Councilman Brandon Scott questioned why the mayor didn't hire from within the department, and others pointed out that Ford has never run an agency as large as Baltimore's. Lincoln's fire department has 300 employees, compared with 1,700 in Baltimore.
"Does he know the issues and concerns of a city the size of Baltimore?" asked City Councilman Warren Branch, chair of the public safety committee. "I'm interested to hear what he's going to present."
Those who've worked with Ford praised his leadership in smaller jurisdictions, however.
"He's very innovative," said Jeanne Pashalek, a division chief in Lincoln's fire department who worked under Ford "He's a very authentic person. It's very unfortunate that we lost him. It's very fortunate for all of you in Baltimore to have him."
Ford's most recent position as a city manager ended with a clash with the City Council in Chamblee, Ga., which has a population of 10,000. According to news reports, the Chamblee City Council issued a preliminary resolution saying its members had lost confidence in Ford.
In an interview, Ford, who oversaw a $14 million budget there, said he agreed to resign after he refused to approve permission for a building on a council member's personal property that Ford believed violated zoning laws. Ford declined to name the council member.
"This city councilperson's property did not meet the current zoning guidelines," Ford said. "It was too small to put a house on. I felt like it was my job to be consistent, and treat him like any other citizen."
Shortly thereafter, the council began an effort to terminate Ford without cause, he says.
"I said, 'It's obvious that this is not a good fit for me or you," Ford says. "Let's agree to separate amicably."
Reached Sunday, Chamblee City Council member Thomas S. Hogan II said he was not at liberty to discuss Ford's departure from the city, but endorsed him as a quality leader.
"I think Niles would make an outstanding fire chief," he said. "He's incredibly professional. I believe in the right team he will be a tremendous asset."
Rawlings-Blake said the departure from his last job came up during Ford's interview.
"I was very satisfied with his answer," he said. "The decision speaks to his integrity and to the strength of his character."
Ford holds a Ph.D. in Organization and Management from Capella University, a for-profit institution that teaches most of its classes online.
He began work in public safety in 1991 as a dispatcher in Bessemer, Ala. A year later, he became a firefighter there, rising to the rank of captain in Bessemer Fire & Rescue. From 2003 to 2007, he was a deputy fire chief in Fulton County, Ga., before becoming fire chief in Lincoln for four years.
There, Ford says, he was able to implement a number of reforms, including turning a money-losing ambulance service into a revenue-generator and implementing a plan to increase diversity in the department.
Ford was also reportedly one of three finalists to become Tallahassee's next fire chief, according to the Tallahassee Democrat.
With the hire, Rawlings-Blake continued a trend of looking across the country to fill vacancies in Baltimore's most important agencies. Police Chief Anthony Batts was hired from California, while Baltimore Development Corporation chief Brenda McKenzie comes from Boston.
"There were internal candidates who were absolutely considered," Rawlings-Blake said of the position. "However it's my job to recruit the best talent to work in Baltimore whether that talent exists here or outside of the city."
A self-described "military brat," Ford was born in Dover, Del., and grew up all over the country. As a child, he overcame a disabled foot to play soccer, and later passed tests needed to join various fire departments despite what he calls an "invisible disability."
His first job was as a band director for middle and high school students, he said. He has two daughters, ages 13 and 18.
Firefighters said they were eager to meet Ford and learn more about him.
Firefighters union president Rick Hoffman said he's hoping Ford will beef up paramedic staffing in the agency, while the head of the black firefighters group, the Vulcan Blazers, said he'd like to see Ford increase diversity.
"I am sensitive to the fact that there are still racial issues in the department," said Henry Burris of the Vulcan Blazers. "I think it would take someone from the outside to do what needs to be done."
Campbell, who lamented that Ford is the second chief in a row from outside the agency, said he was keeping an open mind.
"I do look forward to speaking with him and working with him," he said.
Name: Niles Ford
Experience: City Manager, Chamblee, Ga., 2011-2013; Fire Chief, Lincoln, Neb., 2007-2011; Deputy Fire Chief, Fulton County, Ga., 2003-2007; Firefighter, Bessemer, Ala., 1992-2003.