To Howard County’s new fire chief, Louis Winston, being prepared for anything life throws your way is important.
“Some of the unique challenges that we’ve seen with this pandemic is that you don’t know what the emergency will be,” Winston said. “Our challenge is to be prepared for whatever the needs of the community are as it comes to public safety, fire rescue and [emergency medical services] and that we are prepared as a fire department to meet those needs of the community whatever they may be.”
After retiring in 2020 from a three-decade career in fire and rescue services, Winston, 55, of Columbia was appointed to his role in September as the chief of the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services by Howard County Executive Calvin Ball.
Winston joined the department in 1990 and has served under seven fire chiefs and six county executives. He fulfilled a number of roles including assistant chief, battalion chief and chief officer before retiring as deputy chief in January 2020.
Winston grew up in Turner Station in Baltimore County, and said it was not until he was a student at Millersville University in Pennsylvania that he became interested in the fire service. A friend who worked in fire and rescue services convinced him to take a test for a position at the Howard County department.
After that test, he dedicated his career to public safety. He says his work has been about promoting safety through data-driven information, education and training.
“I absolutely enjoyed every moment of my career with the Howard County Fire and Rescue,” Winston said. “Coming into fire services with no experience and having the opportunity to serve the community and citizens and visitors of Howard County has been my absolute pleasure.”
Ball said he selected Winston for the fire chief position because of his experience and dedication to public safety.
“I wanted somebody who shared my commitment to public safety, ensuring that each and every one of our residents and visitors were not only safe, but felt safe,” Ball said. “Having Chief Winston, who not only had a wonderful career in the department, but was so well respected and, frankly, a mentor to a lot of the next generation of chiefs was just a no-brainer.”
As fire chief, Winston oversees a staff of 500 career firefighters, 75 civilian and contingent staff and about 300 operational volunteer firefighters from the six volunteer corporations in Howard County.
Typically, the department responds to about 38,000 incidents each year, with the majority involving providing emergency medical care, he said.
After his 2020 retirement, Winston said he still felt a strong desire to serve the community. He returned to the department to work part-time on the incident safety review board at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When you work in public safety for a long time and a pandemic happens, your natural willingness to serve doesn’t just leave you,” Winston said. “I felt like I wanted do something to help out at a time when the community certainly needed volunteers or people to step up and help as we were trying to navigate through the pandemic.”
Building a decades-long career in fire and rescue services did not come without its challenges, Winston said.
One of the challenges he faced early on in his career, he said, was his lack of experience.
“Coming into the fire services with no experience, it’s about building confidence,” he said. “As I got confidence, the job became easier for me and I think that the Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue [Services] does an excellent job of providing its members with the tools to be successful, so it was just applying myself a little bit more to grow in the profession.”
As fire chief, he faces the challenge of leading the department through the pandemic. Since the emergence of the omicron variant, he said the department has experienced a reduction in staff.
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“The omicron variant is now affecting our workforce,” he said. “That’s a big challenge as these different variants come along and [we] try to assure that we have sufficient staff to continue to provide the excellent public safety services to the citizens of Howard County.”
Bruce Bennett of Union Bridge has worked with Winston for more than three decades.
Initially serving as a mentor to Winston, Bennett said he continued to cross paths with Winston throughout their careers at the department.
Bennett said Winston handles the role of fire chief with an “honest approach.”
“[He’s] an honest, hardworking guy that will be willing to listen and actually hear different people’s perspectives and then he looks at that and tries to come up with a way we can collaborate together to resolve whatever issue we’re dealing with,” he said.
Winston said it has been a privilege to return to the department to serve as fire chief.
“To have the opportunity to come back and lead the department which I grew up in and just to be able to serve with this department in this county was kind of a no-brainer for me,” he said. “It is my honor to be the fire chief and it’s a great deal of responsibility, but I accept that challenge and I look forward to moving this department into the future to face the many unique and unpredictable challenges that today’s public safety environment faces.”