NOLA superintendent to retire; announcement prompts conflicting reactions

Tim McConnell was praised by officials for his efforts to restore fire stations after Hurricane Katrina, but endured scorn related to long-standing labor grievances


By Ramon Antonio Vargas
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

NEW ORLEANS, La. — Tim McConnell, who joined the New Orleans Fire Department more than three decades ago and has been its superintendent since 2013, is retiring Friday.

His departure, announced Wednesday, will end a career that drew praise from New Orleans leaders for his efforts to restore most of the fire stations destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, for launching a program providing free smoke alarms to households across the region and for serving as the face of City Hall's response to the deadly Hard Rock Hotel construction project collapse.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell called McConnell, 59, "a vital asset to my public safety leadership team, and a good friend." She added: "God bless you, chief. You will be missed but not forgotten."

Yet McConnell endured heaps of scorn from his subordinates for failing to resolve a number of their long-standing labor grievances, mostly involving staffing levels, promotions and pensions. Firefighters' union President Aaron Mischler said he and most of his members are eager for the post-McConnell era.

"I see his retirement as a fresh start," Mischler said. "Things needed to change."

McConnell joined the Fire Department in 1984, five years after his graduation from Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie. He steadily rose through the ranks, taking charge of the agency's suppression and logistics division and being promoted to second-in-command in 2009.

He caught the eye of City Hall by spearheading the restoration of 20 of the 23 firehouses damaged by Katrina in 2005. And when his predecessor as superintendent, Charles Parent, took leave in 2013 ahead of his retirement, McConnell transitioned easily into the interim No. 1 role.

McConnell was among seven internal candidates and 33 from across the country to apply for the top job. Calling him "a workhorse" and "a firefighter's firefighter," then-Mayor Mitch Landrieu selected McConnell to succeed Parent in July 2013.

He immediately made a mark by unrolling a campaign to install — at no cost — smoke detectors in homes citywide.

Dave Tibbets, chief of Jefferson Parish's East Bank Consolidated Fire Department, said there is no doubt McConnell's program saved lives. Tibbetts said most people who die in fires live in single-family residences or duplexes, and smoke alarms help them get out of harm's way and call for help quickly so firefighters have the best chance possible at limiting damage.

"It's a fundamental program," Tibbetts said. "It's an important program."

After the Oct. 12, 2019, collapse of the Hard Rock Hotel, McConnell and his trademark pushbroom mustache became a familiar sight to New Orleanians. He supervised crews that secured the site and executed a dramatic demolition of two teetering construction cranes that were brought down with the help of explosives. He also commanded crews that removed the bodies of the three construction workers killed by the collapse.

The body of the first worker, Anthony Magrette, was retrieved within a couple of days of the disaster. The bodies of the remaining two workers, Quinnyon Wimberly and Jose Ponce, were recovered 10 months later, following a raft of delays involving weather, equipment problems and clashes between city officials and developers.

McConnell shouldered the unenviable task "with dignity and respect," Cantrell said. "His leadership was critical."

City Council President Jason Williams said McConnell's roles during the Hard Rock crisis and while restoring the firehouses after Katrina demonstrated his willingness to "answer the bell without hesitation when called upon."

"During our most difficult ... moments, we have been able to count on the chief's steady and reassuring disposition and trust that his team remains ready to serve," Williams said.

Yet throughout his tenure as superintendent, McConnell and his 480 or so subordinates frequently quarreled over labor issues. Most of those disputes centered on staffing levels, promotions and pensions.

For years, firefighters have been expected to work overtime to patch over a chronic staffing shortage.

Mischler and his fellow union members have also complained that city administrators may pick and choose whomever they want to promote, rather than basing decisions off a system primarily based on test scores. That continued to be the case even after a December 2018 appellate court ruling found that internal politics unconstitutionally denied promotions to 15 firefighters, despite civil service rules meant to prevent such outcomes.

Meanwhile, current rules require firefighters hired after 2015 to work 40 years to collect a full pension, while those hired earlier need wait only 30 years. The union has long demanded a uniform system but has yet to get it.

Those issues boiled over during Carnival this year, when the union voted to go on strike beginning four days before Mardi Gras. Had the union gone through with the strike, it could have led to the cancellation of the season's remaining parades. But the union backed off when Cantrell and McConnell agreed to form a committee to pursue the reforms demanded by the union, among other more immediate concessions.

In September, City Hall announced it was receiving a $15.9 million federal grant to hire more than 60 new firefighters. But another labor spasm flared up in the past two weeks, after firefighters started furloughs under a City Hall plan requiring municipal employees to take six unpaid days off by the end of the year to counteract a steep decline in sales tax revenue during the coronavirus pandemic.

Almost all 4,700 of the employees are subject to the furloughs, although firefighters have been vocal in saying theirs come at the expense of their safety and the public's.

"It was time for a change," Mischler said of McConnell's retirement. "I feel that's going to be his lasting legacy on this department."

Cantrell's office said City Hall plans to host a retirement ceremony for McConnell on Friday at 4 p.m. During that gathering, he is scheduled to take a ceremonial final walk as superintendent.

A Cantrell spokesperson said McConnell's interim successor will be Deputy Superintendent Roman Nelson. Nelson, a 23-year veteran of the agency, heads its operations division and was one of the candidates McConnell beat out to become superintendent.

Mischler applauded Nelson. "We look forward to working for him," Mischler said.

The firefighters' pension board on Wednesday didn't immediately respond to a request seeking information on the annual amount McConnell would collect in retirement.

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(c)2020 The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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