Howard County names first female fire chief, a 29-year department veteran

Jess Nocera
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

When Christine Uhlhorn was in kindergarten and was asked to draw a picture of what she wanted to do when she grew up, she drew a firetruck.

“My family has over 250 years in the fire service,” said Uhlhorn, 50. “I never questioned it. There was nothing else I ever wanted to do.”

Uhlhorn, a third generation firefighter, was named Monday by County Executive Calvin Ball as the new fire chief of Howard County’s Department Fire and Rescue Services.

She becomes the county’s first female career fire chief, and said she was “beyond humbled” to be chosen.

A lifelong Marylander who lives in Joppa, Uhlhorn began her career with Howard County in 1989 as a firefighter recruit and emergency medical technician working at Station 9, Long Reach.

During her nearly 30-year career she moved up the ranks, serving in a variety of roles — including assistant fire chief for almost three years.

She recalled that when deciding where she wanted to work, Howard County was her first choice — in part because of another trailblazer.

“It was because of Liz Bobo, the first female Howard County executive,” she said. “I felt I would have opportunities here, I felt it was a growing department and I would grow with it.”

Ball, the county’s first black county executive, said he selected Uhlhorn as the new chief because she shares his vision for quality for all aspects of life in Howard County.

“I recognize that a key component of [that vision] is safety, health and wellness,” Ball said. “It was important for me to have someone like Chief Uhlhorn — who not only has the experience and record of service, but also shares my vision.”

“I think she will lead us well,” he said. “[She] can bring fresh perspective on how we can serve our brothers and sisters in the fire and rescue services as well as all of our residents.”

Ball, a Democrat who is also a former firefighter and emergency medical technician, said he previously served with Uhlhorn in the department.

Her first day is “effective immediately,” he said.

Uhlhorn is taking command following former chief John Butler, who left in September to become chief of the Fairfax County, Va. fire department. He announced his departure in July.

Since September, Daniel G. Merson, the county’s deputy fire chief, has been serving at the interim chief after being selected by Kittleman.

Butler, the county’s first black chief, was with Howard’s fire department for 25 years, and said he worked with Uhlhorn that entire time.

“In an industry that doesn’t have a whole lot of women fire chiefs and women chief officers, Christine was a role model and held her own at the table,” Butler said. “She has and had a voice and often spoke for those who were apprehensive to speak out loud.”

Uhlhorn’s salary is $205,010, according to a Ball spokesman. Butler’s salary as the county chief was $199,047.

In Howard County, 11 percent of career firefighters are women, according to Uhlhorn. Since early in her career, she said, she has fought for inclusive policies. She said some stations were not prepared for women members years ago — there were group showers, shared bathrooms and “ill-fitting uniforms.”

Across all stations, the turnout gear is now fitted for each person’s body, Uhlhorn said.

Looking ahead, Uhlhorn says she wants to continue making health and safety a priority, including work to reduce firefighters’ contact with carcinogens that can cause cancer. For instance, the department has begun a process where contaminated turnout gear and equipment is kept away from firefighters and out of the cabs until it can be cleaned.

Uhlhorn said she wants to curb the numbers of firefighters diagnosed with cancer, and help provide opportunities for members of the service to “have long retirements with their families.”

She also hopes to sow the seeds of interest in a new generation of potential firefighters. For the past three years, Uhlhorn has been part of First Alarm Fire Camp, a summer camp primarily for girls, but open to all children, to learn about fire education and safety.

Howard County’s 12-station fire department has 453 career uniformed personnel. The county is working toward opening three new stations, including one in downtown Columbia slated to open in August, another in north Columbia, and a third in Waterloo.

Butler said he was impressed with Ball’s pick for chief. With Uhlhorn at the helm, “the department is in really good hands,” he said.

“She has a great support network and I’m sure the organization is going to rally around her and make the place better,” he said.

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