Ten years back, long before he would become chief of the Alexandria Fire Department, Jack Beam gave his fellow firefighters an order that made him about as popular as a pay cut: Shape up -- literally -- or ship out.

In 1977, then-Capt. Beam designed a mandatory physical fitness program that required all city firefighters to exercise at least an hour a day. Regular physical examinations were instituted. And anyone hired by the department signed a contract that included a provision against smoking.

The program, one of the first of its kind anywhere, got a lot of headlines. And Beam got a lot of grief.

"I heard a lot about it from a lot of people," Beam recalled recently, his lean, marathon-runner's frame propped casually behind his desk. "And it still rears its ugly head every now and then."

But these days Beam hears mostly praise. The fitness program worked: Beam says that job-related disabilities, sick leave and the percentage of smokers among Alexandria firefighters have all plummeted.

And when Beam applied for the chief's job this summer, the department's rank-and-file members lobbied City Manager Vola Lawson on his behalf.

Lawson appointed Beam several weeks ago over almost 40 other applicants, in part because of enthusiasm about him within the ranks.

The Fire Department has been scarred by bureaucratic battles in recent years, and firefighters say they have come to appreciate Beam's low-key manner and his willingness to listen to their problems.

And in a city where long-running management turmoil in the Police Department has its officers urging Lawson to go outside the city for a new chief, Beam's ability to rally support stood out.

"It was certainly encouraging to know that people inside the department really wanted him," Lawson said recently.

And Richard E. LaRock, a retired firefighter who is president of the Alexandria local of the International Association of Firefighters, said, "We had a morale problem, and Chief Beam has worked on that.

"Some of it is little things, like letting everybody wear baseball hats {with the Fire Department insignia}. But you can sit down and talk to him, too. He's got an open mind. I would say that he is probably 95 percent liked."

Beam, 50, has spent half his life in the Alexandria Fire Department, but says that staying in touch with his workers is still the toughest part of his job.

"I spent all day today out at fire stations, shaking everybody's hand and giving out Christmas greetings," he said last week.

"But I still don't think I see enough of the troops. I've got people at 13 different locations spread out over three shifts, which means I've really got people in 40 different times and places. I'll never get to talk to all my people at one time -- ever."

Beam manages 250 people involved in several tasks: 142 firefighters and 33 paramedics respond to emergencies, 46 workers in the city's Building Code Enforcement division ensure that all new buildings are constructed properly, and about 30 support and communications personnel try to keep things running smoothly.

And with the advent of increasingly sophisticated technology, running a fire department has become an even more demanding job.

Next year, for example, Alexandria expects to install a computer-aided dispatch system that Beam hopes will cut his department's response time. And because of the increasing use and variety of toxic substances, Beam must be ready to handle large-scale emergencies.

The new chief has prepared himself for the task with a rigorous program of self-improvement. He not only runs marathons and rides in bicycle races -- "I've never used a day of sick leave in my 25 years here," he said -- but he also has received three college degrees, including a master's degree in education, while on the job.

"For 14 years, from 1968 through 1982, I was in night school without a break," he said. "There were times I didn't know how I was going to do it.

"But managers have to be willing to try new and better things, and that's a good way to learn what is new. Overall it's been good. And I'm back in school now trying to do something with computers. I've got to be ready when we get that new radio system."

Beam says he got the urge to become a firefighter, and to better himself, when he graduated from high school in his home town, the small western North Carolina village of Marion.

"I wasn't one of those kids who grew up next to the fire station wanting to ride on the engine," he said. "But the day I graduated, I got a job in a textile plant. That lasted about three months. I said to myself, 'There's got to be something better than this.' "

He then moved to Newport News, and the first job he could find was with the city fire department. "I kind of got hooked," Beam said.

Three years later, Beam said, he went looking for a department with "higher professional standards." Alexandria offered a job, and he has been here ever since.

Beam says his department still measures itself against high standards. "All of our emergency medical people are certified paramedics," he said. "And all our firefighters are certified to the highest level they can be under national certification programs. We have good people and we want to keep it that way."

But the department has had organizational struggles. In late 1983, as part of a cost-cutting effort, the city's fire and police departments were combined into a Public Safety Department. When the police chief was appointed the new department's director, the fire chief quit rather than accept the number two post.

Many firefighters considered the appointment a slap in the face and felt they were viewed as second-class citizens.

The merger worked out so badly that the two departments were separated in January 1986. But Beam acknowledges that some hurt feelings remain.

"It was an absolute nightmare," he said. "It simply didn't work. When we were separated, the Fire Department moved its office back to where it had been before the merger {in a firehouse at 900 Second St.}. It was like a kid coming back home."

Beam also keeps tabs on a code enforcement division that was shaken up this year. Three inspectors were fired and the director was demoted after several inspectors were found to have approved construction work that did not meet city standards.

"That's not my area of expertise, and I've got to work to make sure they don't feel like orphans," Beam said. "I've also got to depend heavily on my managers there. I've been a firefighter; I haven't been an inspector."

Beam says that one of his first goals will be to increase the numbers of women and minorities in the Fire Department. Right now, only two city firefighters are women. "Quite frankly, I'm embarrassed about {that}," he said.

"The fire service is steeped in tradition, and it's been hard," Beam said. "But if my wife or daughter wanted to be firefighter, I wouldn't want somebody to discriminate against them. I'd like to be the person who finally resolves this problem, and I'm going to do it.

"We work for the people, and we ought to be open to all the people. For a person with a high school education, firefighting has gotten to be a pretty good job nowadays. And we want to make it the best job we can for everyone."