Last week, James Edward Heller, a man who likes to wear Mickey Mouse ears and play with model railroad trains, became Howard County's new fire chief, and the county's veteran police officers could begin planning their vacations.
It's not that fun and games has come to the county police and fire departments, but rather some stability, with the appointment of Mr. Heller to the top fire post and the graduation of 39 police cadets. The more serious repercussions of these occurrences, we hope, will lead to a greater police presence in the community and a fire department shorn of the bickering that has festered for years between career and volunteer firefighters. The signs are good that both outcomes have possibility.
Mr. Heller, 57, comes to the fire job at a critical juncture in the department's history. After the sudden resignation of Darl R. "Mickey" McBride as chief last October, the county faced the prospect of hiring a new chief from outside Howard. Such a move would effectively have put the department and important new initiatives on hold through the remaining year of County Executive Charles I. Ecker's current term.
Mr. Heller's willingness to take the job means the department can move forward. If he's around for a while, the beleaguered unit might even get some long-overdue continuity. In addition to having four fire chiefs in seven years, the department suffers from an on-going rift between career members and volunteers that has threatened its effectiveness.
rTC Mr. Heller, fortunately, can see both sides of the argument. He began his career as a volunteer, and in the mid-1980s, was responsible for establishing a firefighting academy, which has trained about half of the current force's career and volunteer personnel. Today, the department numbers about 380 career employees and active volunteers. Cohesiveness would reassure the community that public safety is "Job One."
Meanwhile, the addition of 39 new police officers will further another major goal of the county: community policing. A hiring freeze for the past three years greatly increased demands on officers, keeping too many off the streets (as well as interferring with vacations and other leaves.) An expanded force should help close that void. The logical result of all this should be a safer community.