Mayor Brandon Scott announced Wednesday morning that he has tapped James Wallace to lead the Baltimore City Fire Department, after eight months of a series of rotating interim leaders. The 33-year veteran of the department will begin serving as acting chief effective immediately.

Wallace has served as the director of the Mayor’s Office of Emergency Management, an office within the Fire Department tasked with everything from pandemic response to creating and implementing citywide plans during hazardous weather, since 2020.

“I remain as committed to my job as I did when I began in 1990,” Wallace said at a news conference. He entered the Fire Department as a paramedic before becoming a firefighter/paramedic and subsequently becoming a lieutenant. The 54-year-old’s other department leadership stints including serving as battalion chief for special operations command and as deputy chief.

Scott will formally submit Wallace’s nomination to the City Council at their next meeting on August 21. He needs the council’s approval before his acting status could transition to permanent.

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“I know that under Chief Wallace’s unmatched leadership and experience, our Fire Department will continue to excel in its mission and further enhance its services to the community,” the mayor said in a statement.

After former Chief Niles Ford resigned following a damning report about firefighter deaths at the scene of a 2021 fire at a Stricker Street vacant home, Scott appointed Assistant Chiefs Charles Svehla, Chris Caisse, and Dante Stewart to serve as interim fire chief on a rotating basis. On Wednesday, Wallace said they would return to their assistant chief posts, except for one of the men, who is retiring. He declined to name him.

Scott originally intended for assistant chiefs to rotate on a monthly basis, but Josh Fannon, the president of the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 964, said that Stewart has acted as the sole interim leader since the springtime.

“I was told that they kind of collectively agreed the rotating thing was just not an effective way to manage. The Fire Department’s a paramilitary operation,” the union leader said. “When problems go up, there has to be a clear line of authority and chain of command. You can’t have a rotating triumvirate of leaders at the top.”

Matthew Coster, the president of IAFF Local 734, said the rank and file his union chapter represents know Stewart more than Wallace, but that “we wouldn’t go as far as to say we prefer one over the other.”

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Fannon said he hopes the nomination proceedings before the council go smoothly without any hiccups so that Wallace can begin to address a long list of problems, including pay, staffing, equipment and firehouses.

“Chief Wallace has his work cut out for him the next next few months, if not years,” Coster said.

Ford’s salary for the budget year ending June 30, 2022, was $229,544, according to the city’s public database of earnings. Wallace’s salary as emergency management director for the same time period was $179,232.

The 2022 report on agency operations, released shortly before Ford’s sudden exit, faulted the fire department for failing to abide by recommendations made in past reports about line-of-duty deaths and close calls, including hiring assistants to aid incident response leaders and providing first responders with high-technology portable radios.

The report, written by regional safety officials, said that implementing such recommendations could have helped rein in the chaos and confusion at the scene of the Stricker Street fire, where Lt. Paul Butrim, Lt. Kelsey Sadler, and EMT/Firefighter Kenny Lacayo died.

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Wallace said the interim chiefs before him worked to move recommendations in the report forward and that he will do the same.

“We will work not only with the command staff that you see here,” he said at a news conference surrounded by top brass, “but members of the department and the unions. We will all work together to continue to build upon what’s already been done.”

City charter requires cabinet members to be Baltimore residents. Scott answered for Wallace when the acting chief was asked if he lived in the city.

“He’s actually talked to me about that and which neighborhoods I think are best. Of course told him that Northeast Baltimore is the best,” said Scott, who recently purchased a home in Hamilton.

Emily Sullivan covers Baltimore City Hall. She joined the Banner after three years at WYPR, where she won multiple awards for her radio stories on city politics and culture. She previously reported for NPR’s national airwaves, focusing on business news and breaking news.

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