The Colonel’s Plan – “And That’s Three”

March 22, 2019

Dear Daddy–

The three most brilliant men I ever knew were all taken down by dementia. You were one, Yoji Kondo was the second. We lost you and Yoji within the space of a year. Today, we lost the third. Unlike Yoji, I don’t believe you ever met Jim Heller. Jim was Howard County’s seventh fire chief, and the one who hired me, in 1997, to fill a position blandly titled “Records Management System Administrator.” 

Only Jim didn’t do bland or unimaginative. Like you, he was always looking for better ways to do things. Like you, he knew that ever-improving technology could be employed to do jobs better, faster and simpler. Like you, he could look at a challenge that everyone else was afraid of, role up his sleeves and say, “Let’s start by doing this…” 

His list of accomplishments is below, in the sitting Fire Chief’s official announcement of his passing. I was privileged to help write that notice this morning, when we received the news. Ironically, my old friend, retired Captain David Carroll, was visiting. Dave lives out West now, and had just happened to drop in to see the Fire Department’s new offices. Dave had been my direct supervisor for my first three years at the Department. Together with Jim, we had built the beginnings of what is today the Bureau of Technology Services, of which I am Chief. Before that, the Fire Department had had virtually no technology support, because it hadn’t needed it. Dave and I sat down in my office to catch up, and he quickly received a text message. “Oh no,” he said, “please don’t let it be this one.” I asked what was up. He said the text was from Jim’s daughter. 

And I knew. 

Jim had been in assisted living for a few years, and an “Oh no” text could only mean one thing, because there wasn’t much else left that could go wrong for him. He had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s back in 2015. I learned of the diagnosis in an email from his wife, Liz. That email came Wednesday of the week that you had received your diagnosis. It took me six weeks to work up the courage to go see him. I had to apologize for being out of touch, explaining that having my real father and my “work Dad” receive the same news at the same time was too much. 

Jim’s dementia started off differently than yours. You were angry. He was content. You had false memories and made wild statements. He just had trouble summoning words. The first time I saw him after the diagnosis, he was out clearing snow off his driveway. He happily greeted me, and there was no noticeable change in him, until we sat down to talk at length. Then the language failures became apparent. By the next time I saw him, he had stopped speaking, unless someone told stories of the fire service. The time after that, he wouldn’t speak at all, though he still laughed if I told a funny story about an old co-worker. I figured that, unsure of what words to use, he decided to just not talk. The last time I saw him, he still seemed content in the presence of friends. 

But what a come-down! When I arrived in 1997, the Department was using computer programs for payroll, training and personnel that Jim had written. I still have his files, written in dBase 3, and printouts of his code. He threw data mining and analysis problems at me that he said he hadn’t found anyone to solve. I solved them because I wouldn’t dare let him down. That wasn’t about fear for my job, it was because I knew this man was brilliant, and because he looked out for me. 

Whenever I came into his office with a problem (I did not then know how rare it is for a lowly civilian support staff member to have access to the Fire Chief’s open door on a daily basis), Jim would listen until he got the gist, then grab the phone and fix what was wrong. Indeed, I had to learn to say, “Please don’t pick up the phone yet,” when I came into his office. He was that ready to help. He sent me to committee and team meetings to represent him, at which Department Heads and their Deputies were present. I knew it wasn’t considered appropriate for me, at my level, to be there, but Jim wanted me there; so I became very good at saying, “On behalf of the Fire Chief, we need… it is crucial that… this situation is unacceptable.” Once, a former County Department Head had had enough, and called a meeting for Department Heads only. “We’ll see about that,” said Jim. “You’re going with me.” When we walked in, Mr. Head (not his real name) said, “This is a high-level meeting.” “This is my Chief Information Officer,” said Jim. “He ishigh level.” There were many frustrations with my job, then as now, but my ego was never in danger. 

At my first meeting with Jim, I asked him, “What’s the most important thing you need me to do?” He asked if I’d seen the system I was hired to administer. I said I was just getting to know it. “Good, but I need you to get rid of it,” he told me. “It’s not working. Find a better one. Build a better one. But get rid of that one.” The County had just introduced a pay for performance initiative, in which our job performance would be rated on a one to six scale. “If that system is out the door next year, you get a six.” 

It took two years, but I got a six. Actually, I got a 5.95, because no one was allowed a six. When Jim retired, and the future looked uncertain, the company I had chased out the door hired me at a 60% salary increase. I asked Jim if I should take the job. “You don’t have a choice,” he said. 

I didn’t stay long at that company. It wasn’t a very secure position, and the Department wound up finding additional money for my position and asking me back. So, for the last 18 years, I’ve continued, under several new leaders, to finish projects Jim started, to deliver innovations he envisioned. That’s not because I failed to listen to new leaders and do my own thing, it’s because Jim’s wisdom was such that those new leaders knew he had pointed us in the right direction. 

Jim was fearless and forceful in his decision-making. When Y2K was looming, and the Department was relying on systems that would not survive the date change, we were confronted with the sad fact that there was no vendor who could repair or replace our systems in time, at a cost we could afford, and give us the functionality we needed. “What do you think we should do?” he asked me. I asked him to send me to series of classes and buy me some hardware. I made myself into a full-blown developer and wrote us an all-new system. Under anyone else but Jim, I would never have had that opportunity. It could have gone wrong in a very big way, and left the Department screwed. It didn’t. He was courageous (crazy?) enough to believe in me, as he tended to believe in his people, and, as I said, I didn’t dare let him down. Alongside this, Dave Carroll and I physically upgraded every computer we owned to replace Y2K non-compliant processors. County leadership disapproved, but Jim stood behind us again. We did the job and saved the taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars. 

Just as I learned from you that leadership is not being afraid to take on the impossible, I learned from Jim that leadership is believing in the people you lead. 

And now, like you, he’s gone. Like you, it felt like he was gone, in a lot of ways, before he left. Like you, his contributions live on. Like you, he changed lives. 

You never met him. I hope, now, you will. You, Jim and Yoji should have some interesting conversations, free of the madness of dementia. 

–Love, Steven

Chief Uhlhorn’s Announcement:

It is with great sadness that I announce that Retired Director (Fire Chief) James E. Heller passed away peacefully this morning, surrounded by his family and loved ones.

James E. Heller was the seventh fire chief of Howard County, Maryland, serving from 1993 to 2000. Chief Heller began his career in the fire service in 1960 as a volunteer in Baltimore County. Upon moving to Howard County in 1967, he joined the Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company, serving as a firefighter, ambulance attendant, lieutenant, captain, assistant chief, and finally their fire chief in 1973. Hired as a lieutenant and director of training for the Howard County Fire Department in 1974, he became the first career lieutenant for the county department. Chief Heller earned a Bachelor of Science degree in fire service management from the University of Baltimore and served as a field instructor for the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute beginning in 1969.

Chief Heller invited everyone to “just call me Jim.” Those who worked with him remember him as committed to customer service, frequently asking, “How does this help Mrs. Smith?” (Mrs. Smith was our fictional customer.)

A strong advocate of technology in the Fire Service, he pioneered Automated Vehicle Location (AVL), the use of a map-based CAD system, Mobile Data Computers, and the 800 MHz radio system. He was instrumental to the creation of a Geographic Information Services team in the County. He also initiated our original fax-based Medical Incident Report system, and the Safe Kids Program.

Chief Heller utilized early generation GIS to illustrate the need and proposed locations for additional fire stations to better serve Howard County’s growing population. One such station was proposed to be built in the Glenwood area. Though constructed after his term, Chief Heller was on hand to see his vision come to fruition for the benefit of western Howard County. A 12th station (Waterloo), proposed as a result of his efforts, is still in the planning phase.

Chief Heller is survived by his wife Liz, sons James, Jr. (Quartermaster for Howard County Police), and Andrew, his daughter Holly Heller Harden (A Supervisor for Howard County Recreation & Parks), and several grandchildren. 

The family has no needs at this time and is requesting privacy for the time being. 

In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to: 

Lisbon Volunteer Fire Company
1330 Woodbine Rd, 
Woodbine, MD 21797

Please keep the Heller Family in your thoughts and prayers.

Christine Uhlhorn
Fire EMS Chief
Howard County Department of Fire and Rescue Services

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1 thought on “The Colonel’s Plan – “And That’s Three”

  1. I live in the poorest county in my state. We face yearly fire holocaust issues-it’s been three years since the last range fire made things a clear existential threat. Yet our County Commissioners have failed to be responsive. It is fascinating to read the granular details of your writings about the evolution of Fire protection services in your county,and learn more about your role in them. I am awed at what you and your mates did from scratch, and the solid leadership and common sense back up your Chief provided. Thank you for sharing this in your letters to your Dad with us.

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