Any endeavor has the potential for success given the right resources, skill and strategy. Nevertheless, the outcome remains largely dependent on the leadership responsible for joining and focusing those factors.
For Howard County Fire Chief John Butler, that principle is put to the test with every emergency call received by the county’s 911 dispatcher.
“We respond to citizens who are experiencing the worst moment of their lives in some cases,” said Butler, a graduate of the Leadership Howard County Class of 2012. “The decisions that we make are crucial for us and the people we serve, so we spend a lot of time selecting the right leaders to ensure the best possible outcome.”
The leadership role is one Butler became familiar with at an early age. “I was the oldest of four children, so my parents expected me to be the peacekeeper, the babysitter, the referee and the negotiator,” he said.
He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps at the age of 18, took charge of an infantry squad by the age of 21 and began his service as a county firefighter at the age of 23.
Since then, Butler has worked in every job within the Department of Fire and Rescue Services, with the exception of the Fire Marshall’s Office.
Originally from Monrovia, Liberia, Butler’s family moved to the United States while he was a child and eventually settled in Howard County when he was 12 years old. He is a graduate of Oakland Mills High School.
“I’ve been very comfortable in leadership roles,” Butler said, but he realized at the beginning of his career that a high school diploma and discharge papers would only carry him so far.
“I walked through the door very green,” he acknowledged, a situation that impelled him to pursue both education and leadership training, which led to a master’s degree in Management from Johns Hopkins University.
The prospect of attending a Leadership Howard County class was both an honor and a valuable opportunity, Butler said, but also a source of trepidation. “I didn’t know if I could be a valuable member of the class while settling into my role as the department’s new chief administrative officer and trying to stand up the Bureau [of Administrative Services] at the same time.”
He managed to keep all of the balls in the air, though, and does not regret his decision to take on the additional challenge.
“The values of that program come in with the relationships that were built during that one year of my life,” Butler said. “Real friendships were created, and I can call them ‘Friends’ with a capital F. We continue to meet for breakfasts, happy hours and in each others’ homes.”
In his post-graduate experience, Butler said, the program far transcended its reputation as a network-fostering program with distinct business advantages.
Decisions and Focus
The role of leadership is multifaceted in the Department of Fire and Rescue Services, Butler observed, requiring personnel to work together to put out both literal and figurative fires.
“We expect to send everybody home safely at the end of our shifts,” he said. “That can only be realized with strong, solid leaders and decision makers, and that’s why we strive to have a culture of learning in our department. I’ve lived it for a long time, and that’s why I’m advocating continuing and improving it.”
During his installation ceremony, Butler pledged to improve public trust in the department and focus on the value systems that are supported by taxpayers’ money.
“We’re going to do that by leveraging innovation and technology,” he said. “We’re going to go hard and heavy with research as to how best to utilize technology and add to it with our own organic, innovative thoughts. We can get a lot done by automating some systems, and better data and analytics will help us identify what we’re doing right and what we need to improve.”
This strategy builds on the successes Butler helped the department achieve during his tenure as chief administrative officer, and also in his role as a key player in creating an Emergency Medical Services system in the county.
“Through the effort I led we discovered that a lot of the work was decentralized and created redundancies,” he noted. “As a result, we crafted some efficiencies in administrative procedures, diversity management and recruiting … but there’s still work to do.”
The role of fire chief carries “a monumental responsibility,” Butler said, and it’s not lost on him that he personifies a number of firsts, among them the first fire chief to have held every rank in the department and the first African-American to serve as chief.
“I want to be a role model and share the success stories that we have around us,” he said. “The county’s combined department is one to be proud of.”
Butler also expressed pride in his inclusion as a graduate of Leadership Howard County and the influence the program has made on the county.
“I’m particularly impressed with the program’s leadership; [President and CEO] Stacie Hunt is running a good ship, and I’m proud of her energy and the teams that support her,” he said. “Three years after I’ve graduated, Leadership Howard County is every bit as important in my life as it was when I first started the class. Not a day goes by that it doesn’t influence or inform something I do.”