A familiar face pulled on a firefighter's jacket at Winchester Hall on Monday, as he also donned the mantle of Frederick County fire chief.
In a morning news conference, County Executive Jan Gardner announced that Tom Owens, former fire and rescue services director, would return to lead the agency. His appointment comes just days after the sudden departure of former county Fire Chief Denise Pouget, who spent about 20 months in the role.
Gardner said bringing back Owens would provide some consistency to a fire service jostled by a series of leadership and structural changes.
"Tom will bring that continuity and will help to stabilize our fire and EMS service. Tom brings experience and relationships with both our volunteer and career staff," Gardner said. "He is well-regarded and well-respected by both."
Owens worked for about three years as director of the county's Division of Fire and Rescue Services but left the post in 2013 because of family needs and personal health concerns. Stepping down gave Owens enough time to get a clean bill of health and focus on his family in the final months of his father's life.
Difficulty seeing eye-to-eye with the former Board of County Commissioners also factored in Owens' resignation, he said. At the time, the commissioners were pressuring him to reduce spending, and he was uncomfortable with some staffing cuts pushed by that board.
Owens said given his personal challenges, he asked himself, "Do I want to be the guy who dismantles the county fire and rescue service?" Despite differences of opinion with the commissioners, Owens said his departure wasn't acrimonious, and he didn't harbor any bitterness or resentment toward the board.
Monday was his first day back on the job, and Gardner said she had already handed him a two-page to-do list. Owens is also planning a listening tour to meet with key figures in fire and rescue services.
He said he appreciates some of the actions taken by Pouget, his predecessor, and that he will evaluate the initiatives for effectiveness.
"Do I see a radical turnaround of the agency? No," he said.
The County Council will now decide whether to confirm Owens as fire chief, a job that will pay $158,333 per year.
Gardner also said the county will find replacements for the two deputy chiefs who left county employment along with Pouget. Owens will be in charge of choosing the deputy chiefs, said Gardner, who added that these positions will become merit-based so that county employees can be promoted into them. Previously, the deputy chiefs were appointees of the fire chief.
Pouget has said that both she and her deputy chiefs, Allen Keyser and Michael Grierson, were forced out of their jobs on Thursday.
While Owens' installment as chief came close on the heels of Pouget's departure, Gardner rejected the suggestion that a leadership change was happening swiftly. Her transition team has interviewed all the division directors as they consider the county's organizational structure, she noted.
"I would say we've had a thoughtful, slow process, not a quick process," she said.
Owens said Gardner contacted him in February to discuss his return to the county fire service.
John Neary, president of the county career firefighters union, said he met with Gardner about a month ago and let her know he would support a leadership change in DFRS. Under Pouget's supervision, the agency was more focused on equipment upgrades than on service delivery, he said.
The frequent turnovers at the division's helm are difficult for rescue personnel, Neary said, who added that he's seen 13 or 14 different directors in the past 25 years. But he said Owens is a known leader to the fire service.
"We've dealt with Chief O. before. We already understand some of what he wants to do," said Neary, who leads the Frederick County Career Firefighters Association.
Eric Smothers, leader of the volunteer firefighters union, said he was surprised by Pouget's exit, although he agreed with Neary that local personnel will be able to work with Owens.
"With Tom coming back, he's a known quantity to us," said Smothers, president of the Frederick County Volunteer Fire and Rescue Association. "It should be an easy transition."
But this time around, Owens will be occupying a new role as chief of a blended system of career and volunteer personnel. Pouget was the first person to serve as a countywide fire chief, a position established in 2013 by the prior board of commissioners in an effort to achieve greater cohesiveness in the emergency services.