Niles Ford, the new man at the helm of the Baltimore City Fire Department (BFD), is not new at public safety. The 48-year-old African American native of Dover, Del. has spent nearly half his life as a fire fighter, paramedic and a student of urban government management.
Ford, who was unveiled Dec. 30 as Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s choice to take over the BFD, reflected recently on a professional life spent in public service.
He said he wants Baltimore residents and the city’s 1,800-member fire department to see “my passion, my confidence, my integrity, my compassion” as he takes over the BFD Jan. 22 following confirmation of the appointment by the Baltimore City Council. “These are the organizational tools I think are needed to resemble a leader,” Ford told the AFRO.
Running a fire department in a major city is just one more challenge for a man who has spent a lifetime overcoming hurdles. Because of a birth defect, he said, has to work harder than most people all his life.
“Most people have two bones in that part of the leg. I only have one,” he said. “Certain things have been a struggle,” he told the AFRO, adding, “I am humbled, because I understand preparation and I understand work.”
The son of a Air Force careerist, he first considered a life in the military.
But because of his physical limitations, he said, he turned to public safety as a vocation, joining Bessemer, Ala.’s fire department as a dispatcher in 1991.
Ford said he had no problems with the written test but there was a tougher challenge—meeting Bessemer’s requirement of running a mile and a half in less than 12 minutes.
“I practiced everyday for months before the test because I was determined,” he said.
He told the AFRO at times he felt like giving up, but was motivated by Eric Jones, a friend who ran with him. He succeeded in meeting the requirement.
Ford said that determination and will is what catapulted him into his career.
He said he learned about the position in Baltimore by a fellow member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
Ford said the three-month application and interview process has been a “whirlwind.”
“I believe we have found a dedicated public servant with a proven track record of results,” Rawlings-Blake said of Ford. “He has spent the last 20-plus years working in fire departments in multiple capacities and when he wasn’t working Dr. Ford continued to grow professionally.”
His most recent post was city manager of Chamblee, Ga. and, four years after serving as deputy fire chief in Atlanta was fire chief in Lincoln, Neb. from 2007 to 2011.
He taught at Capella University in the school’s public safety leadership program, focusing on emergency response and management of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear, and explosive incidents.
“In selecting Dr. Ford, I believe we have found a dedicated public servant with a proven track record," Rawlings-Blake said. “He has … the integrity, dedication and determination necessary to keep moving the Baltimore City Fire Department forward."
“My job is to lead the fire department for the community and that’s what I intend on doing on behalf of this mayor [who] has given me this amazing opportunity. I have no intention on putting her trust into any negative light,” he said.
Ford said he plans to make an effort to visit every fire station.
“I am excited about the opportunity,” Ford said. “I hope people will understand pretty readily that I’m there for them and that my selection was valid.”
Ford said he lives by a simple thought: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
He said, “I believe that is where your integrity is tested and where you stand as a leader.”
Ford is married and is the father of two daughters.