Fire official retiring after two decades


After 32 years in law enforcement and fire investigation, including a 10-year stint as commander of the state's bomb squad, Allen L. Ward, deputy chief state fire marshal, will retire in two weeks and not look back.

Ward, 53, said he has a few job offers and will take a two-week vacation before deciding which one he'll accept. He declined to say what the offers are.

"Neither is in law enforcement or fire service," said Ward, who went to Westminster this year as supervisor of the Metro regional office of the Maryland State Fire Marshal after more than 25 years working from the Northeast regional office at locations in Harford County.

Before that, he served about four years as an officer for the Bel Air Police Department after three years in the Army as a military police officer.

Ask Ward about his professional career and his eyes tell all. They sparkle when he talks of the challenges, the successes. They grow tired and sadden at the memories of tragedies he has seen.

His worst memory is of a 1979 fire in Joppa, where four children died in the blaze after their mother went to get water because the house had no indoor plumbing.

"I still have flashbacks about that one," Ward said. "It appeared the children - all except one, an infant - had tried to escape, but didn't make it out."

Bob Thomas, a longtime friend and also a deputy chief state fire marshal, said Ward has "truly grown to hate investigating fatal fires with a passion."

Thomas, who calls Ward his mentor, recalled a 1982 fatal fire in Edgewood, where a toddler was found dead in the ashes.

"That was deeply disturbing to Al and took an emotional toll on him for a long time," Thomas recalled. "He was always thoroughly professional during his investigations, but also very honest and compassionate, finding the origin and cause of the fire and letting grieving relatives know what could have been done to prevent the tragedy."

Ward has humorous memories, too, such as the afternoon in 1992 when a bomb call came in from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

As bomb squad commander, Ward rushed off in a marked vehicle from headquarters, then at Reisterstown Road Plaza, and was speeding on the Beltway about 80 mph, Thomas recalled.

"Suddenly, from age or the wind and velocity, the light bar with flashing lights on the car roof sheered off and struck the median wall, smashing into a thousand pieces," Thomas said. "He went on to the airport and later returned to headquarters to explain to the state fire marshal how he lost the light bar."

Ward had the last laugh on Thomas, who once called in with a report on a barn fire in rural Harford County.

"I was a city boy from Prince George's County new to the rural farming community, and Al asked what happened," Thomas said. "I told him a barn with a bank branch in the basement had been destroyed and he said, 'What?'

"I told him again what had happened and he must have laughed for half an hour."

The farmer who owned the barn had told Thomas his "bank barn" had burned, referring to the style of the structure that was built into an embankment, providing ground-level access to the barn's first floor on one side and to the second floor on the other side.

Fire investigations and bomb squad operations were the most enjoyable part of his career, Ward said. But he also liked other important aspects of being a fire marshal: the duties involving fire prevention and disseminating information to the public.

He called fire investigations the "most challenging, because you work under adverse conditions 90 percent of the time."

"At a fire scene, it's either really hot or really cold," he said. "The working conditions are unpleasant, but it's satisfying to determine the origin and cause of the fire in those extreme conditions."

Bomb investigations are often more difficult because of the amount of destruction, Ward said, but fortunately, the bomb squad sees more hoaxes than explosive devices.

"You still have to approach a possible explosive device - hoax or not - with the same precaution," Ward said. "The available safety equipment has improved over the years. We didn't have bomb dogs, bomb suits, X-ray equipment or robots in the old days. But even now, if a device is detonated, you don't know what is present that could cause another explosion."

Since Desert Storm, the threat of terrorist attacks has increased and Ward helped write Maryland's procedural policies for building security, handling bomb threats, large building searches and evacuations.

"We've had no direct terrorist activity, but incidents in Oklahoma City, New York City and Atlanta, for example, have drawn national media attention and send you back to the basics, reviewing all procedures," he said.

Ward's advice to young fire marshals: "Be diligent, keep an open mind and don't think you know it all."

"With Al's spirit, faith and work ethic, he'll make someone an excellent employee," Thomas said. "He'll be greatly missed by the law enforcement and fire service community."

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