D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams tapped a 31-year member of the fire department and former union president to be the interim chief until a search committee can recruit a permanent replacement.

Thomas Tippett, a deputy fire chief, will take over the top job immediately. He replaces Donald Edwards, who was forced out after growing criticism about his management ability and questions about where he lived. Edwards had been chief since 1997.

Williams officially announced the change during a news conference yesterday at One Judiciary Square. He was joined by members of his staff and Stephen D. Harlan, a former member of the D.C. financial control board who will lead the search for a permanent chief.

"The interim chief will carry out a mandate to see that there is restructuring in many, many areas," Williams said. " . . . The interim chief will be about changing the department and not just adjusting the drapes." The mayor described Tippett as "a highly skilled and experienced firefighter" who also is capable of managing people and providing bold leadership.

Of Edwards, the mayor said, "Chief Edwards is a dedicated firefighter, and I have enormous respect for him."

Tippett said he will address several issues immediately, including purchasing much-needed firetrucks, providing state-of-the-art radios and other equipment, including new breathing apparatuses with alarms that can locate firefighters in burning buildings, and adding a fifth person to firetrucks.

The interim chief, who said he considers himself a candidate for the permanent position, said he will work "to ensure the safety of the firefighters and the citizens of the District" and to improve services in a department that has suffered budget cuts and other financial constraints in recent years.

Tippett said another priority will be to improve the response time for emergency medical vehicles. "Response times are still unacceptable," he said.

Tippett, who will turn 53 this month, has the backing of the D.C. firefighters union's 1,200 rank-and-file members, according to Lt. Raymond Sneed, the union president.

"At this stage of the game, you need a no-nonsense person who understands the issue and will make the changes immediately," Sneed said. "I think what the mayor did was to pick the best person to run the department. [Tippett] will be supported by the rank and file."

Tippett has a reputation among firefighters as being aggressive, with a knack for making tough decisions, traits that Sneed said he thought Edwards lacked as chief.

When asked if he chose Tippett because of his union ties, Williams said: "He's got tremendous background and a depth of experience. And as it happens, he has good connections with labor, which I think is a plus here, but it really goes beyond that."

George Burke, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters, applauded the appointment of Tippett.

"He's proven himself" as a deputy chief, Burke said. "And managing a union is in itself a management position and requires political skills and the ability to handle people."

Tippett faces an array of challenges. The department has 80 firefighter vacancies, a shortage of firetrucks and outdated equipment. Edwards said this week he has ordered new radios and breathing equipment.

At Williams's request, Harlan plans to launch a national search within days to find a permanent chief to oversee the 1,830 employees. Officials declined to predict how long it will take to find a permanent successor.

"We don't want to sacrifice quality for speed," Harlan said.

Harlan, who led the search committee that recruited D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, said he will cast a wide net.

Sneed said the search won't be easy.

"Sometimes people are reluctant to come to the District because of the politics of the job," Sneed said. He said he hopes Williams will consider Tippett for the permanent job, but only if Tippett immediately tackles the safety issues.

"If he doesn't do what he's supposed to do, then the mayor should go outside," Sneed said.

The D.C. fire department was once viewed as one of the top departments in the country, Burke said. But in the last 20 years, the agency has "fallen into a state of disrepair" and needs a strong leader.

"A good chief . . . looks out for the health, safety and welfare of the men and women who put their lives on the line every day," Burke said.

Williams said he would not "insist" that Tippett move from Maryland to the District unless he becomes the permanent fire chief. Edwards came under attack last month for owning a home in Adelphi as well as renting an apartment in the District, as reported by WRC-TV (Channel 4). D.C. Cabinet members are required to live in the District.

Williams also said he is assembling a management team to work with Tippett to make sure he has the resources to reach his goals. The team will include representatives from the procurement, personnel and chief financial officer's offices.

"Ultimately, this is about delivering first-class service our residents expect and deserve," Williams said. "Our firefighters put their lives on the line every day to keep our communities safe, and it's up to us to provide them with the support they need."

CAPTION: Interim Fire Chief Thomas Tippett talks to reporters as Mayor Anthony A. Williams listens. Tippett said he will improve the response time on emergency calls.

CAPTION: D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) reacts when a reporter asks newly appointed Interim Fire Chief Thomas Tippett whether he would run for mayor if he doesn't get the permanent job of fire chief.