ELKTON — Joseph G. Zurolo Jr. served as a deputy state fire marshal in Cecil County and elsewhere in Maryland from 1975 until his retirement in 2010, just a segment of his 50 years in law enforcement and related public service.
During the 35 years that he spent investigating hundreds of fires to determine the cause and to, in some of those cases, identify and arrest the person or people responsible for committing the arsons, Zurolo guided his colleagues directly or simply by example.
“Joe was the definition of a mentor,” said Sr. Deputy State Fire Marshal Oliver J. Alkire, a 13-year veteran who is one of several current Maryland Office of the State Fire Marshal detectives that received their field training from Zurolo.
Field training typically lasts six to eight months, a period in which Zurolo took rookies, fresh out of the police academy, under his wing while scouring the charred aftermath scenes, looking for clues, and conducting interviews with witnesses and others who possibly could shed some light.
Even after those field trainings ended and his trainees set out on their own, Zurolo made himself available to answer questions and to give direction as the new and even seasoned investigators handled their own cases.
“I was actually one of the last people he trained. I remember vividly that he called it ‘tutelage’,” Alkire said. “We’ve all had successful careers because of him. He had a real positive influence in our careers.”
He paused for a few seconds and then recalled, “He was cheering us on every step of the way.”
Alkire made his comments on Friday — two days after Zurolo died at the Perry Point Veterans Affairs Medical Center after battling a long illness. He was 71.
Visitation for family and friends will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 13, at the Crouch Funeral Home at 127 South Main St. in North East.
A Mass of Christian Burial will be celebrated on Friday, Feb. 14, at 10 a.m. at the Immaculate Conception Church at 455 Bow St. in Elkton. Interment with full military honors will follow in the Immaculate Conception Cemetery on Singerly Rd. near Elkton.
In August 2016, Zurolo was a central figure in a Cecil Whig article concerning medical studies indicating that firefighters and other first responders run a higher risk of getting cancer and other diseases than civilians.
Zurolo, then 68, revealed in that article that he had chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, and that it was believed to have been caused by his nearly four decades of fighting and investigating fires.
“It’s a direct result of inhaling a lot of smoke over the years,” Zurolo explained to the Cecil Whig three and a half years ago.
One of the comments Zurolo made reflects the importance he placed on the fire detective work that he performed.
“As a deputy fire marshal, you’ve got to investigate the fire. You can’t say, ‘Well there’s smoke. I’ll come back’,” Zurolo remarked.
Another one of his quotes in that August 2016 article demonstrates that, despite his work-related health issues, Zurolo had no regrets. That’s because he viewed fighting and investigating fires as a calling, not a job.
“If I had to do it all over again . . . I would do it again,” Zurolo said.
An ‘aggressive investigator’
As news of Zurolo’s death spread throughout the law enforcement community last week, others, like Alkire, remembered the tireless way Zurolo approached his job and the important role he played in their careers.
“He was very aggressive. He would never leave a stone unturned,” said Deputy Chief State Fire Marshal Derek Chapman, a 22-year veteran whom Zurolo also field trained and mentored.
Chapman is commander of the agency’s Northeast Regional Office, which handles all fire-related investigations, code enforcement and education in Cecil, Harford and Carroll counties, in addition to fire investigations in Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties if a fire involves state-owned property. He supervises eight sworn MOSFM detectives and four support staff.
After he was promoted from master deputy to his current position some 28 months ago, Chapman acknowledged Zurolo in a Cecil Whig article published in October 2018, about 20 years after Zurolo had field trained him.
“Joe was very thorough. He wouldn’t let go. He stayed on a case to the end. He was a very aggressive investigator,” Chapman said during that 2018 interview.
Chapman noted back then, however, that Zurolo never forced his style on him. “He told me, ‘You don’t have to do what I do; I’m just showing you how I do it.’”
In that same article, Zurolo, much like a teacher witnessing the matriculation of a former student, expressed a seemingly personal satisfaction over Chapman’s promotion.
“I was his field trainer. He turned out to be a very good deputy state fire marshal,” Zurolo said.
Then Zurolo, who was some eight years into his retirement at the time, gave what Chapman holds as a valued vote of confidence with these words: “If I was still working and he was my supervisor, I would have no problem with that. His promotion is well-deserved.”
On Friday, Chapman told the Cecil Whig that Zurolo’s advice concerning thoroughly and tirelessly working every single case guided him during his years as a fire investigator and that he still follows it to this day.
Chapman qualified that he gained from Zurolo’s knowledge and experience and then folded all of that into his own style.
“I have taken that philosophy and put my own spin on it,” Chapman said.
He explained that it is more common these days for two fire detectives to handle a case because of the every-growing reliance on surveillance cameras, cell phone content, ring technology and such in investigations.
“Joe did his own thing. He had a ‘one-fire, one-investigator’ approach,” Chapman said, noting that, at one time, Zurolo was the only fire detective assigned to Cecil County.
Zurolo seemed to take his cases personally and was known to revisit old, unsolved cases and pore over them.
“His mindset was, it might take a week, it might take years, but never let it go,” Chapman said. “A cold case might sit on the shelf for a year, but he’d always get back to it, review it all over again. He’d say or think, ‘Something’s not right here’.”
Zurolo would compare notes in the file with information he later received during re-interviews, according to Chapman, who commented, “He always would say, ‘Loose lips, sink ship.’ He’d say (to the interviewee), ‘You told me this a year ago, but now you’re saying this’.”
Along those lines, according to some of his former colleagues, evidence gleaned from the burnt remains of homes and other structures always served as a North Star for Zurolo, who often said, “The fire scene never lies.”
Handling other duties
Chapman emphasized that Zurolo pursued his fire investigations with such tenacity, while also handling additional duties during different periods of his career as the agency’s public information officer, K-9 handler and technician with the MOSFM Bomb Squad.
During the early years of Zurolo’s bomb squad assignment — he started in 1975 — it was much more dangerous than it is now, Zurolo told the Cecil Whig during a December 2018 interview.
“No, we did not have robots when I started,” Zurolo said in that related Whig article some 14 months ago, referring to the remotely-operated robots that the MOSFM Bomb Squad uses today to safely diffuse or detonate explosive devices. “The robots do whatever we had to do — and did — back then.”
Zurolo was interviewed in December 2018 because, after serving approximately 30 years, he recently had retired as the Cecil County Department of Emergency’s Service’s liaison to law enforcement.
In that position, Zurolo coordinated the efforts of Cecil County police agencies and other first responders while stationed in DES’s emergency operations center (EOC) during snowstorms, hurricanes and other emergency situations.
It was one of the many volunteer and public service roles Zurolo played in the community.
“It was time. My health is not the greatest right now,” Zurolo said during that interview, explaining his reason for retiring from that liaison position. “I think I’m just going to chill out now.”
As for his duties as a MOSFM bomb technician, Zurolo served periodically on security details for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush when they made appearances in Maryland.
Considered a personal privilege by him, Zurolo also served on a security detail when Pope John Paul II visited Baltimore and celebrated Mass at Camden Yards on Oct. 8, 1995. Part of Zurolo’s job included inspecting the pope’s altar chair, as well as the Popemobile. An X-ray machine and two specially-trained bomb detection dogs were used to ensure the pope’s safety.
Drawing from experience
Deputy State Fire Marshal Michael G. Selvage, a 14-year agency veteran whom Zurolo also field trained, was served well by Zurolo’s life experiences before he started as a MOSFM detective and after he left Connecticut, where he and his surviving twin brother, Vincent Joseph Zurolo, were born and raised.
In the midst of the Vietnam War, Zurolo went on to serve in the U.S. Army as a member of the military police from 1967 until 1970, when he received his honorable discharge.
“I had orders for there (Vietnam), but I wound up in Korea instead. From Korea, I went to Aberdeen Proving Ground to Germany,” Zurolo outlined during his December 2018 interview with the Whig.
After serving in the military, Zurolo joined the Elkton Police Department in 1971 and spent the next four years working as a patrol officer.
Already familiar with the area because he had been stationed at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Zurolo came to Cecil County after an army buddy of his started working as a Newark (Del.) Police Department officer and suggested that he, too, pursue a career in law enforcement. (Zurolo’s nephew, Joe Zurolo, 51, is an EPD captain who has served with that agency for 24 years.)
Zurolo also joined Singerly Volunteer Fire Co. in February 1972, serving as an active volunteer firefighter who received departmental awards for making the highest number of annual fire calls.
He served on the company’s board of directors in many capacities, too, including 1st vice president. In addition, later in his affiliation with the fire company, Zurolo served as an ambulance driver. A lifetime member of Singerly Volunteer Fire Co., Zurolo was inducted into the Harford-Cecil County Fireman’s Association Hall of Fame in 2017.
“Joe knew almost everybody in the area because of his days as an Elkton Police Department officer. He knew the families and knew the ones that had run-ins. He may have locked up this person’s dad and so forth,” Selvage said, adding that, as a result, “He knew so many people and he knew exactly who to call to get information (when investigating a case).”
Zurolo also had “tight bonds with the Maryland State Police,” according to Selvage. (MOSFM detectives work out of MSP’s North East Barrack, one of the agency’s many places.)
Echoing Chapman’s comments, Selvage told the Whig that Zurolo was experienced, knowledgeable, keen and — above all — persistent as an investigator. During his field training in 2006, Selvage witnessed Zurolo fluently handle a heavy caseload.
“Some of the craziest things happen when he was field-training me. We were having a fatal fire a week,” Selvage said, referring to some of the investigations they conducted in the Cecil-Harford-Kent Counties jurisdiction.
He continued, “To sum up his work, Joe was very passionate about the job. His life was the job. It was an everyday thing for him, literally every day and every night.”
Even when Zurolo technically was off-duty, it was common for on-call MOSFM investigators to cross professional paths with him, according to Selvage.
“It would be 4 a.m. and you’d come into the (North East) barrack — and there was Joe, doing paperwork or looking over a file. It was not unusual to see him out, working, at all hours,” Selvage said, adding, “Joe was Joe. He moved to the beat of his own drum.”
Strong work ethic
Deputy State Fire Marshal Howard F. Ewing met Zurolo some four decades ago, when Ewing worked as a dispatcher with what would now be considered the Cecil County Department of Emergency Services, which, back then, operated in the basement of the Cecil County Circuit Courthouse.
As part of his duties, Ewing would call the on-call MOSFM investigators, including Zurolo, and dispatch them to fire scenes. They got to know each other through those interactions and through Zurolo periodically coming into what was then known as the civil defense command center.
They became good friends.
In 2001, one year after Ewing started his career as a MOSFM investigator, he was working on the Eastern Shore when Zurolo called him with an offer.
“He called me because there was an opening (in the jurisdiction that includes Cecil County). He said, ‘Do you want to come up here and work with me?’ I said, ‘Absolutely.’ I was transferred and I worked with Joe from 2001 until the day he retired (in 2010).”
Ewing viewed Zurolo as a mentor, as well as a collaborator.
“We were always bouncing ideas off of each other and discussing cases together,” Ewing said.
He, too, gained from Zurolo’s knowledge and experience and his willingness to share. Ewing also learned simply by observing the way Zurolo conducted his investigations.
“He was a hard charger. Once he developed something, he went after it. He was tedious and he had a strong work ethic,” Ewing said, adding, “You have to stay on top of things; that’s one of the big lessons I learned from him.”
Also, according to Ewing, “Joe’s big thing was, ‘You have to go with what the fire scene tells you’,” and corroborate that with witness interviews.
Now in his 20th year as a MOSFM detective, Ewing has investigated hundreds of fires, and he credits Zurolo for being instrumental in his career.
“Joe is very much a part of me getting to what I am today,” Ewing said.
For more information about the late Joseph G. Zurolo Jr., please read his online obituary at cecildaily.com or in this Wednesday’s edition of the Cecil Whig.