Fire and rescue chief set to revamp system


Five months after taking the reins of Howard County Fire and Rescue Services, Chief Joseph A. Herr is putting the finishing touches on a sweeping reorganization that is expected to significantly change the way the department is run.

The changes, many of which are expected to take effect July 1, will create new leadership positions in the central offices while eliminating a number of management jobs in the station houses.

Herr plans to reduce the number of firefighters and paramedics who are asked to move from their assigned station to fill gaps in service elsewhere.

Each change has its benefit, Herr said last week in an interview: Reducing the number of station house captains in favor of more battalion chiefs will provide more management oversight of key functions and increase chances for promotion, he said. And limiting day-to-day transfers will help build teams and strengthen relationships with the volunteer companies, he said.

The reorganization will reduce the number of captains from 38 to 29 and shift several of them out of the station houses and into support jobs such as training and career development, Herr said. The number of battalion chiefs - the rank above captain - will increase from seven to 16.

The management shuffle will change the way the department is run in the field, Herr said. Instead of placing captains at nine station houses on each of three shifts, the captains will run "companies" - groups of firefighters assigned to a particular engine or ladder truck.

The new chief gave several reasons for the changes: At present, leadership at the stations changes from day to day.Under the new system, there will be one leader for one company, which Herr said will lead to greater accountability.

The department also needed to better delegate support services such as life safety and facilities, which have traditionally been handled as add-ons to other duties, he said. The new system is expected to address that issue by assigning captains and battalion chiefs to various support functions, he said.

Herr, who began working in Howard County on Dec. 4, said he started putting his ideas together within weeks of his arrival but had to wait to discuss the changes until after the union finished its pension negotiations this year. Since that contract was signed two months ago, Herr has talked with members of the department, as well as the chiefs of the volunteer companies, the union and other groups, he said.

Lt. Michael Rund, the president of the county firefighters union - which represents 238 county firefighters at the rank of lieutenant and below - said there was skepticism about the changes initially because of uncertainty about what they would entail.

But now his group sees some positives. The plan shifts more responsibility to the lieutenants in the field and gives more chances for promotion above the rank of captain, he said.

For now, the union is taking a wait-and-see approach: "We're all curious to see what's going to happen because no one knows," Rund said.

The structural changes were needed in an organization whose professional ranks have steadily grown as the county's population has boomed and where career firefighters work side by side with volunteer units, Herr said last week. The new system will provide more opportunities for growth while giving support services the necessary oversight, he said.

The new plan also adds a higher rank to the medical side of the operation. Under the current system one captain per shift acts as a medical duty officer; under the new system, a captain and a battalion chief will oversee medical operations.

Bill Coyle, a co-founder of Howard County Citizens for Public Safety, said his group has concerns about how the changes will affect staffing in the field. The plan calls for moving more people from the field to the office, he said. Coyle said the goal should be to make certain that each piece of apparatus is adequately staffed - with four people per rescue squad and tower, three people per engine and two per ambulance.

"We have cautioned him [Herr] that we think taking that many people out of the field in July will make that impossible - as it's impossible now," he said.

But Herr stressed that parts of his plan are "very dynamic" depending on staffing needs, and he said the plan includes having a set number of people assigned to each company. Coyle has "raised the same concerns with me," he said. "I think it's been addressed."

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