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Heller is named Howard fire chief


Veteran firefighter James Edward Heller, 57, was named director of the county fire service yesterday -- a job he had no interest in 10 weeks ago.

He is the second director appointed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker in 2 1/2 years and the fourth person to head the service in the last seven years.

The lack of continuity at the top caused Chief Heller to change his mind and apply for the job.

"I hope it's at least a five-year job," Mr. Ecker said, "this year and hopefully four more after the next election, if I am re-elected. It's a difficult job, no doubt about it."

The No. 1 wish-list request on a recent survey of county firefighters was for a director who is on the job more than two years, Mr. Heller said.

Mr. Ecker named Chief Heller acting director in early October after the abrupt resignation of Darl R. "Mickey" McBride. Hired in 1991, Mr. McBride resigned over what Mr. Ecker called "a difference in philosophies."

When the executive asked Chief Heller in October if he were interested in having the job permanently, Chief Heller said no. He said he began reconsidering that decision about six weeks ago.

If a director were hired from outside the fire service, the department would be in a "holding pattern for about a year" while he and other people trained the new director, Chief Heller said. He felt the department could not put new and existing programs on hold that long.

Mr. Ecker picked Chief Heller over the three nominees recommended to him by the county fire board. The board had interviewed six candidates for the $71,209-a-year job.

What set Chief Heller apart, Mr. Ecker said, "is his commitment to making a combination volunteer and career service work. He has the ability to communicate with both career people and volunteers."

Chief Heller, who moved here from Baltimore County in 1967, was a Howard County volunteer himself until he was hired in 1974 to set up and direct a county training program.

"The primary focus in the early days was on volunteers," he said, "because we were not hiring many employees."

In the mid-'80s, he helped establish a career firefighting academy that now trains volunteers and career people together and has trained about half of the current force.

"The career-volunteer conflict is there," Chief Heller says, "but it is no more significant than the conflict between two fire districts. The problem is that it is magnified disagreement. [Firefighters] disagree on a lot of things, but they are not portrayed as destroying our system."

Mr. Ecker wants the county's combination fire service to function as a unit.

"We have wonderful career people; we have wonderful volunteer people. We need a fire and emergency rescue service in the county that is supplied by both," he said.

Chief Heller said he plans to avoid getting stuck by agreeing to disagree when necessary and getting on with the department's joint programs.

"I try to get a vision and ideas from others besides myself," he said. "I know I don't have all the answers or all the solutions, but I probably have a lot of the questions. I am not afraid to take somebody else's advice.

"As the years go on, I appreciate more and more the fact that we have some really incredibly talented people in this shop."

One of the best things that can happen, Chief Heller says, is for local volunteers and career firefighters "to rub elbows [with firefighters elsewhere] to see just how far ahead we are. We are on the cutting edge -- along with Phoenix, California, and Florida."

Chief Heller also has a few things in mind for Mr. Ecker and County Administrator Raquel Sanudo.

"Chuck and Raquel need to spend time in a fire station," he said. "I want them to spend a 24-hour shift and see what goes on in life -- see how career and volunteers interact on the street."

He hopes County Council members would share such a program also. "I'd like to have them understand what we're doing and call bureau chiefs and discuss it when there's a problem rather than zinging off a letter down here."

The chief also wants to visit fire victims several months after a fire to discover if what they said at the time of the fire still holds. "People often give us rave reviews" at the time of the fire, he said, "but we need to ask [several months later], 'How we could have served you better?' "

Chief Heller said he would deal with increased job stress by playing daily the theater organ he built -- "one of the best stress relievers ever" -- and "stay heavy into model railroading with his three grown children." He and his wife of 33 years are planning a cruise to the Caribbean in February.

As a reminder not to become too pompous, the chief has a set of Mickey Mouse ears with "Jimmy" emblazoned on them sitting on his computer. He has worn them on occasion at high level fire department meetings, but not to meetings with the executive. At least, not yet.

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