Fighting fires was a thrill for J. Robert Ray, but he has spent a lot of time sitting behind a desk.
In three decades with the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, Ray has spent as much time planning, organizing and leading as fighting fires. He has supervised everything from the training academy to the emergency call center to the fire marshal's office. And last week Ray guaranteed himself even more time behind a desk, when he was sworn in as the county's ninth fire chief.
"When I started, I really liked the excitement of fighting fires, but after 30 years your interests sort of evolve," said Ray, 52.
For the past 10 years, Ray has served as one of the department's three deputy chiefs. But he has made certain to spend time in the station houses with firefighters, paramedics and volunteers and worked a shift as a battalion chief as recently as the summer.
"When you sit behind that desk, sometimes you lose track of what's going on in the day-to-day operations," said Ray, in his office at Fire Department headquarters in Millersville. "I want to spend time in fire stations sitting down with them and seeing what they need, so that when we sit down in this room and make decisions we know what they think."
One of Ray's primary goals for the department is to improve the efficiency of the response to medical calls. Under the current system, advanced life support teams are often sent to aid people who do not have a life-threatening problem. The chief plans to streamline the system so that basic life support teams are sent to help people with less serious concerns, such as a broken leg, and the advanced teams and equipment are reserved for people with more grave problems, such as a heart attack or car accident injuries.
The chief will also oversee the department's largest training class to date. About 100 recruits will start training this winter, more than double the typical size of a recruit class. The department - with about 800 employees, including 700 in uniform - is understaffed because of a spate of recent retirements and a delay in starting a new recruit class. The new recruits will be split into two groups that will train at different locations, Ray said.
Becoming a firefighter was a lifelong dream for Ray, whose father was a Baltimore firefighter. After graduating from Glen Burnie High School, he briefly worked at a factory before joining the county Fire Department. He later graduated from the University of Maryland and completed a leadership training program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
After joining the department in 1977, he worked his way up the ranks and supervised several fire stations before being assigned to code enforcement for the fire marshal's office. He was promoted to chief fire marshal before becoming a deputy fire chief in 1998.
For a short time early this decade he headed the county's office of planning and permits before returning to the Fire Department.
Ray lives with his wife and 15-year-old daughter, Annie, a sophomore at St. Mary's, in Arnold. The couple also has two adult children.
County Executive John R. Leopold said he chose Ray from about a dozen applicants because they had a similar vision for the department.
"I selected him because he is committed to pursuing the two major policy goals that I have for the department," Leopold said. "One is to foster a good working and collaborative relationship between the volunteer and career firefighters, and the other is to spend the taxpayers' money as if it were his own."
The Fire Department has come under scrutiny in the past for exceeding its overtime budget. In the fiscal year ending in 2003, the agency was more than $1 million over budget for overtime, and Chief Roger C. Simonds was forced to step down.
Ray's immediate predecessor, Chief David L. Stokes, reined in overtime spending and kept the department under budget for the first time in 14 years.
Stokes retired in July after 30 years with the department.
The head of the county firefighters union cautioned that it would be challenging for Ray to keep spending low with the department shorthanded. Until the new recruits are fully trained several months from now, it will be necessary to pay firefighters and paramedics overtime to fill vacant shifts, said union President Craig Oldershaw.
"We clearly see that we might not be able to bring this in on budget," he said.
Ray is well-liked by department members and has a good working relationship with the union, Oldershaw said.
"He used to be a member of our union early on in his career," he said. "He understands our needs and he is very receptive to us."