New Md. Fire Chief Praised for Leadership Skills, Changes

Aug. 19--Michael Cox remembers the moment.

He was 15 and on his way to South River High School when the car he was riding in passed a violent wreck. Anne Arundel County firefighters were using the "jaws of life" to cut a person out of one of the cars.

At first, the chaos struck him -- all that damage, all those pieces scattered across the road -- bystanders staring among the piercing sounds of fire engine and ambulance sirens.

But there was something orderly in the way the firefighters were cutting the car open. Something urgent and important.

"They brought control and direction to a very chaotic scene," Cox remembered.

It was the moment he thought about becoming a firefighter.

Thirty years later, Michael Cox leads some 1,200 professional and volunteer firefighters. Last month, the 45-year-old Cox was named chief of the Anne Arundel County Fire Department. The $140,000-a-year job is largely administrative. He rarely goes on calls anymore, but there's much he has and wants to do:

--Cox has changed the hiring process. By training recruits with fire and EMS certifications and getting them out into field first, Cox estimates he can save the county between $200,000 and $400,000. Training those recruits was cut from 24 to 12 weeks.

--He is focusing on recruitment efforts, recently criticized by the International Association of Black Firefighters. The group has called for the U.S. Department of Justice to cut the agency's federal funding, citing an all white, all male recruitment class that began this month. Cox plans to cast a wider net geographically to attract the highest quality candidates.

--He has reshuffled a dozen positions resulting in more firefighters at understaffed stations in Galesville and Herald Harbor in the southern part of the county. The move is expected to decrease response times and lower insurance rates for homeowners in the community. Cox hopes to increase staff at a third understaffed station in Maryland City in January.

"I don't care in what order the ingredients go in to make the soup," Cox said, "as long as the soup gets made."

His leadership style has drawn praise for the 25-year department veteran. Representatives of both the union that represents the bulk of the county's firefighters and the association that represents the county's volunteers have commended Cox for being receptive.

"If an issue comes up, we work together before it really becomes an issue," said Keith Whalen, president of the firefighters' union.

Joe Larsen, president of the Anne Arundel County Volunteer Firefights Association, also speaks regularly with Cox.

Soon after becoming acting fire chief last spring, Cox sat down with the association to address maintenance and training. Volunteers were stunned when Cox asked them how often they'd like to meet.

"We were like 'what?'," Larsen said. "In the past, we only met with the chief when we've had an issue."

Cox, who lives in Edgewater with his wife and two children, is the consummate department veteran. Three years after graduating from South River High School in 1988, he was hired by county fire. Since then he served in almost every bureau and at about each of the county's 31 fire stations before reaching the height of his career.

But he hasn't forgotten seeing that roadside crash 30 years ago. Or later, that call he went on in the early 1990s. It was just before Christmas. Edgewater. Many cars involved. Several deaths.

"Many days you see a lot of bad things," the fire chief said. "But many days you really make a difference in people's lives."

Copyright 2013 - The Capital, Annapolis, Md.