Wide search expected for new Howard fire chief

Howard County Fire Chief John Butler is leaving for a Northern Virginia post.
Howard County Fire Chief John Butler is leaving for a Northern Virginia post. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group file)

Howard County will search inside and outside the county for a new fire chief, an aide to the county executive said tonight.

John Butler, the county’s first African-American chief who worked his way up the ranks of Howard’s fire and rescue service, is leaving this summer to take command of the larger Fairfax County, Va., fire department, officials announced Wednesday.


A graduate of Oakland Mills High School and a Marine Corps veteran, Butler began his career with the county’s fire department in 1993 as a firefighter paramedic and is the first paramedic to become chief.

“The sadness is that I will be leaving an organization that has been, outside of my primary family, the one and only focus of my adult life for nearly three decades,” Butler said in a statement issued by the county.


Butler said the move provides him with a “new professional opportunity” that he couldn’t turn down.

An aide to Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman said there is no specific information about the search for a new chief, such as whether the county will hire an outside consultant to manage the process or what experience and qualifications are being sought in applicants.

In a statement, Kittleman said he will appoint an acting chief. Butler’s current salary was unavailable from a spokesman for the county and fire service.

“This is a bittersweet moment for us here in Howard County,” Kittleman said in a statement. “John has been an outstanding leader.”

The county’s fire department is looking to increase its uniformed staff in the coming year, with a request in the fiscal 2019 operating budget to add 37 firefighter positions.

Butler will begin his new job Sept. 1, replacing Chief Richard Bowers, who retired in April. His annual salary will be $201,878. Butler was appointed by the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

Penny Gross, vice chairman of the supervisors, said that the board interviewed three finalists.

“The board was pretty united that he was the guy,” Gross said.

Gross said what she liked most is that Butler “digs deep to find stakeholders,” which will be important in helping the fire department be the best that it can be.

The Fairfax department, almost five times the size of Howard County’s, has been under scrutiny following complaints of sexual harassment by some rank-and-file members and the widely publicized suicide of a female firefighter.

“The culture needs to be addressed while we continue to put out fires … It’s the culture the psychology, it’s how the department’s behavior works [that needs to be addressed],” Gross said. “That is something we thought he would be great at navigating at.”

Howard County’s 12-station department has 454 uniformed personnel. In May, the fire department asked for county funding to add 37 firefighters in the budget year budget that began July 1.

As chief, Butler implemented the distribution of Stop the Bleed kits, an initiative to teach residents on how to immediately stop life-threatening bleeding. Under his leadership, Howard became the first county in the state to launch PulsePoint, a smartphone application that alerts trained subscribers to people nearby in cardiac arrest.


He also established the first local affiliate of the International Association of Women in FIre and Emergency Services. Butler helped establish a fire leadership degree program at Howard Community College and an fire and life safety initiative for the school system.

Butler served inthe Marine Corps for 21 years, including two combat tours, one in Panama and the Persian Gulf.

He holds a masters from John Hopkins University, a bachelor’s from the University of Baltimore and a certificate from Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government Leadership in Crisis Program. He is a also a graduate of the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program.

The county’s firefighters union, the Howard County Professional Fire Fighters Association, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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