Departing Howard fire chief reflects on tenure

Outgoing Howard County Fire Chief Bill Goddard
Outgoing Howard County Fire Chief Bill Goddard

Bill Goddard's first taste of the firefighter's life came in 1965, when he was 14 years old.

That was the year Goddard, 63, joined the Prince George's County fire service as an associate junior volunteer member, a novice position that required him to wait two years before he could ride the trucks to help extinguish a blaze.


But firefighting became his passion, and the experience marked the beginning of a long career that has taken him to the top of the ranks in Prince George's County as deputy fire chief; to Oklahoma City to investigate how to respond to a catastrophic bombing; to Annapolis as the deputy secretary of state under former Gov. Parris Glendening; and, finally, to Columbia as Howard County's fire chief.

Goddard's last day was Dec. 2, and he will be succeeded by deputy fire chief John Butler, who will fill his role until the county finds a permanent replacement.

Last week, Goddard reflected upon the five years and nine months he's spent at the helm of the county's fire and rescue department since he was appointed in 2009.

When he thinks about the department's work over that time, he says he finds it hard to focus on any one initiative, achievement or event.

"Every day presents another opportunity to do something that you didn't do yesterday, to make it better," he said. "And I've never looked back at the end of a week and said, okay, what have we done; let's make sure we capture it somewhere.

"It is very, very difficult to put your finger on any one as being more important than the next, because for me, I think it's all important."

During Goddard's time as chief, the department has seen an increase in the county's cardiac arrest survival rate from 19 percent to 53 percent; the second highest in the nation. Emergency response times have been reduced by nearly a minute thanks to a streamline of the call-taking process as well as a new digital dispatch system that alerts all the county's fire stations of an emergency simultaneously, rather than routing the call to a particular location.

The county has also expanded its Office of Emergency Management, which falls under the purview of fire and rescue services; incorporated CPR training in schools; and reduced fire insurance premiums for county residents who live within 5 miles of a fire station.

"We have achieved, I believe, some great things for Howard," said Goddard, who said he gives much of the credit to the "women and men of this department who have contributed their life in improving the level of service for their community."

For all his successes, Goddard's tenure has not been without controversy. The chief supported an increase in the fire tax and has angered western county firefighters with a requirement that contingents – part-time, paid firefighters who don't receive benefits and have traditionally staffed western stations where there are no career personnel – meet strict national training standards.

In July, the number of contingents in the county dropped from 34 to one.

Goddard says his decision to require training standards was out of concern for the safety of the county's firefighters.

"While we as firefighters and paramedics have bought into the craziness of this profession ... my obligation is not only to the firefighters, but more importantly to their families," he said. "My commitment to them is that every firefighter and paramedic in this department will be trained to the highest standard possible.

"The piece that I value the most is during the five years and nine months on my watch, I sent every single firefighter and paramedic home to their families."


Goddard says he doesn't expect to take too much of a break before moving on to his next endeavor: "I still believe I'm young enough to contribute in some way, somewhere."

But this winter, he'll be sitting on his patio in front of a fire pit, rather than in the county's command center, when the snow comes.

"My wife and I are looking forward to watching the snow fall this year," he said.