Howard County's director of fire and rescue services will retire at the end of the month after 43 years as a firefighter and county fire official.

No reason was given for Richard W. Shaw's decision to retire now, and it is unclear what his retirement plans are.

County Executive Charles I. Ecker has not selected a replacement for the $62,000-a-year position. Shaw could not be reached for comment.

Fire officials declined to say whether Shaw's decision was affected by the plans of Ecker, who recently took office.

Ecker assigned a three-member public safety task force to examine the fire department, the police department and division of corrections. One of the stated goals of the task force is to "investigate {the} status of leadership" in the fire department.

Shaw, 58, was appointed fire administrator in January 1987 and has directed the department through a period in which it has fought to keep up with the county's growth.

Among other things, Shaw was primarily responsible for numerous changes within the department, including the addition of an unprecedented number of firefighters and the creation of policies designed to improve firefighters' health and safety.

Shaw's belief that more county-paid firefighters were needed thrust him into the uncomfortable position of overseeing the declining role of the county's volunteer firefighters.

Shaw began his career with the Clarksville Volunteer Fire Department in 1948.

During the past two years, 66 firefighters have been added to the service and the department has purchased land for two firehouses scheduled to be built by 1996. Five stations have been renovated during Shaw's tenure.

But apart from personnel and fire station changes, Shaw's enduring legacy will be his policies aimed at protecting firefighters at the scene of emergencies and improving their general physical condition and psychological state.

Three years ago, for example, the department began to use fire vehicles with enclosed cabs so that firefighters would no longer be required to ride on the back and side of trucks and engines.

Shaw also was responsible for the implementation of the Personal Alert Safety System, in which pager-like devices are used to make firefighters aware if a colleague became immobile or unconscious at the scene of an emergency.

He also put into place the Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Process, designed to help emergency personnel deal with stress experienced after serious traffic accidents or fires.

Other safety and health measures begun during Shaw's tenure include mandatory agility and testing for firefighters and vaccinations for Hepatitis B.

The retiring director also tried to make the department more sensitive to environmental issues.

At his urging, the services improved the exhaust systems on fire vehicles to lessen pollution and began to dispose more carefully of gauze, needles and other materials after using them at emergencies.

The latter measure also was an attempt to protect fire personnel from AIDS and Hepatitis B, both of which had sparked concern among emergency medical services workers in recent years.