Montgomery County could see first African American Fire Chief

Montgomery County Fire and EMS Division Chief Charles Bailey could make history as the county’s first African American Fire Chief. Bailey was recently nominated by County Executive Marc Elrich to lead the department he’s worked for, for over three decades.

Bailey has been with Montgomery County Fire and EMS for 34 years. His family history goes back even further. The nominee tells FOX 5 his ancestors were once slaves in the county and that there are streets named after his relatives.

Now on track to become the first Black fire chief, Bailey currently serves as the Division of Operations Chief – the person responsible for keeping things going during the COVID-19 pandemic.   

"We were learning as we went. That makes it really hard to move a large organization like this in a direction, to get everyone moving in a direction and then to find out tomorrow we were moving on the wrong thing and that we need to move in another direction. That created a tremendous amount of anxiety and tremendous amount of angst," Bailey told FOX 5.

Bailey spoke with FOX 5 about his plans if confirmed as chief. He acknowledged how the department can’t build $40 to $50 million fire stations wherever they want with different neighborhoods popping-up and changing. That’s why part of his plan includes using census data to better direct resources, educating and empowering the county’s very diverse communities of color. One of the areas he’s focused on is how quickly, for example, neighbors are jumping to help someone suffering from a heart attack in certain areas.

"What the data at the national level shows is that Brown people, Black people, non-whites, get bystander CPR at lower rates than their white counterparts. If we pay attention to that, in which, like I said, we’re moving there – that gives us the opportunity to target our bystander CPR efforts in the neighborhoods where that percentage of CPR is low, improve outcomes, yes? And do it at a relatively low cost," said Bailey.

The confirmation vote is expected in mid-January. 

However, in recent weeks, FOX 5 has received emails accusing the division chief of bullying – and sharing information that an internal survey allegedly conducted by the fire department’s union showed members disapproving of Bailey’s nomination.

The union has not responded to FOX 5’s questions on this. We do not know how many people actually participated in the survey. County sources are aware of it and believe some of the criticism against Bailey may be race-related. County sources also told FOX 5 they are not aware of any formal complaints or internal investigations opened into Bailey.

The nominee answered some of the criticism in our interview.

"I think my record over the past 34 years really does speak for itself. But what you have to remember is that my job as the operations chief is to establish, enforce or maintain the standards across the organization, right? And that’s not always easy. That’s not always a comfortable conversation and people don’t always walk away from that feeling good, right? We have high standards here and it is necessary for me to enforce those standards," said Bailey, who also told FOX 5 he plans to change how the department communicates on policies and standards with its members. That’s something he said he does not have control over as Division Chief. Improving communication, also means improving member feedback, he added.

Bailey told FOX 5 he wants to work with career and volunteer members who care.  

A letter sent to the Montgomery County Council this week shows 12 different assistant and division chiefs throwing their support behind Bailey, writing in on portion of the letter: "Montgomery County needs a leader with a vision for the future and the ability to adapt."