M.H. (Jim) Estepp, confirmed Tuesday as Prince George's County's new fire chief, is a man who wanted a career in the fire service so much that he took a $2,000 pay cut to become a career fireman 16 years ago.
"I guess it was in my blood. I'd always wanted to be a fireman from the time I was a kid," says Estepp, who is 37. "I was fascinated with the dedication . . . the fact that people put their lives on the line and did something for the public good."
He started as a volunteer fireman with the Seat Pleasant Volunteer Fire Company in the 1950s, while he was in the wholesale housewares business. Estepp then joined the county fire department in 1962 as an emergency equipment dispatcher.
He has seen thousands of fires, Estepp recalls, and one left him with permanent eye damage. He was fighting a fire in Chapel Oaks on Eastern Avenue when there was a gas explosion, "and there were a couple of us that were blown out of a basement. I thought my number was up then.
"Getting out of the fire service is probably the last thing that I would have thought about. I just thought about getting well and going back again."
The fire service is Estepp's "job and his hobby," said Capt. John P. Jarboe, who has worked with Estepp for 13 years and has been his executive assistant for 3 1/2 years. "He's not afraid to work an 18-hour day. He thrives on that sort of thing."
As a manager, Estepp "can take the very best out of everyone and put it to use," Jarboe said. "I would say he's a true manager. He gets things done through people."
Jarboe also credited Estepp with being "easy to talk to . . . a good listener." He initiated an open door policy where any staff member can come in and talk about anything once a month.
Estepp was confirmed as the new fire chief Tuesday, after a public hearing, where there was no opposition, and a 9-to-0 vote by the 11-member County Council.
He has been acting fire chief since April, following the death of Chief Frank P. Briguglio, 58, a long-time career and volunteer fireman who had been the fire chief since 1975.
Estepp says he is "not interested in making a lot of changes" in the department, which includes 475 paid firefighters and 2,300 volunteers in 46 stations. "I think we have a good fire service in the county," he said, "and I want to see that the good service continues. I'm just looking forward to doing a good job and establishing the types of relationships that you need to do a good job."
Away from the office, Estepp says he likes to spend time with his 13-year-old daughter and two sons, who are 11 and 6 years old. He also is involved in some civic work and likes to golf, play tennis and garden at his Clinton home.
But even out of the office, Estepp's wife, Eileen, said his work "is always home with him. When he first started going with the county, he always did that," she said. "Our marriage has been based around that." The children "have been raised that way," she said. "And the children are very proud of their dad."
But some things are not possible with Estepp's schedule. "We don't have a 'normal' dinner hour," she said. "We eat when we have time." But the "whole family is attuned to it, and it doesn't really seem to bother anybody . . . Everybody here is just real proud of him."
Estepp was promoted to a fire inspector in 1965. He became a senior fire inspector in 1968 and attained the rank of captain. He was appointed special assistant to the fire chief in 1970, with responsibility for administration and operations.
Estepp became chief of the Bureau of Fire Prevention, which is called fire marshal in other jurisdictions, in 1972. In that position, he created the county's bomb squad. In 1975, he became acting deputy fire chief for operations, the second person in command of the department.
He recently received an award from the National Fire Protection Association for the House on Wheels fire safety program for school children, which he initiated.