Tim McConnell, a veteran New Orleans firefighter who has served the past four years as assistant superintendent, was sworn in Wednesday as the Fire Department's new leader, promising "permanent, systemic, positive changes" for an agency that faces a staffing crunch and shrinking budget.
"I am both honored and humbled the mayor has ... asked me to lead this department," McConnell said moments after Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced the appointment. "Rest assured I will not let you down."
Landrieu said McConnell was selected after an "exhaustive" two-month national search that began in May. The new fire chief is the "best of the best," Landrieu said, noting that many people with whom he spoke about the open post asked that someone from within the department be given the job.
Forty people applied, and that number was narrowed down to three candidates, including McConnell; Dennis Rubin, former fire chief of the Washington, D.C., Fire and EMS Department; and Rosemary Cloud, fire chief and emergency director for the city of East Point, Ga.
"Having interviewed numerous candidates, he stood head and shoulders above all of those," Landrieu said.
McConnell will make $145,000 a year in his new position, according to City Hall spokesman Tyler Gamble.
While McConnell has decades of accolades on his ré sumé and has been recognized for helping to raise more than $1 million to rehabilitate firehouses that flooded during Hurricane Katrina, one blemish is a state Board of Ethics complaint filed in December.
McConnell served on the board of trustees of the New Orleans Firefighters' Pension Fund from January 2008 to May 2009. At the same time he was being paid to act as the part-time executive assistant to the secretary-treasurer, a violation of state law.
The Ethics Board requested the state Ethics Adjudicatory Board to conduct a hearing on the charge and "assess an appropriate penalty." That case did not appear to have been heard as of Wednesday.
McConnell on Wednesday night said that he always reported his income from the his job on the board on financial disclosure forms, as required by the state Ethics Administration.
"I fully understand the Ethics Code, and I am committed to serving with integrity," he said in a prepared statement.
McConnell replaces Charles Parent, who led the department for the past decade before he took medical leave following a heart attack in February. Parent retired in early June, at which point McConnell became acting superintendent.
Parent praised his successor as someone who through hurricanes Katrina and Isaac and Super Bowl XLVII has demonstrated the leadership skills necessary to take the department "to the next level." McConnell, he said, rose above more senior officers because of his command ability.
"We have a great Fire Department. They deserve and need great leadership," Parent said. "Chief McConnell has the energy, enthusiasm and character to lead this fire department to much greater heights."
McConnell, a 29-year NOFD veteran and the 11th fire superintendent, inherits a department that faces several challenges, including a shrinking force, a smaller budget and morale issues.
The NOFD's $84.9 million budget for 2013 will support fewer firefighters than last year.
Although no layoffs are anticipated, city leaders are counting on attrition to thin the ranks of about 680 firefighters and have not announced any new academy classes.
The firefighters union has criticized this plan, saying fewer boots on the ground will create unsafe conditions for firefighters when they respond to calls.
Meanwhile, NOFD leaders have devised a strategy to realign manpower in an effort to keep all firehouses open. The plan, announced in January, called for two ladder trucks to be decommissioned in coming days, much to the displeasure of the firefighters union and some neighbors in Uptown, where one truck will be taken out of service. The other truck that will be placed out of service will be in New Orleans East.
McConnell said that the number of firefighters is "sufficient" and could actually be lower and the city could be just as safe.
Union President Nick Felton, however, said the department could use about 770 firefighters and described any realignments without adding bodies as a "shell game."
"We are the city's insurance policy," Felton said.
He has said firefighters are "absolutely disgusted" with conditions in the department. Still, he said, the union and city's firefighters will stand behind McConnell as he takes over the department.
"We have a lot of challenges in this city, as well as this Fire Department," Felton said. "I am confident that with Chief McConnell's leadership, we can get through them."
McConnell said he will focus on fire prevention, community service and education in an effort to reduce fires in the city and make the department more proactive than reactive.
"We must begin to see every fire as a failure," McConnell said. "... It's far cheaper to prevent a fire than to respond to one."
He said the department already has a program in place that aims to put a smoke detector in every one- and two-family home in the city. Other initiatives will include getting firefighters out of their engine houses and into schools and the community to educate people about fire-safety practices on a more regular basis.
"It'll be a little bit of a culture change," he said. "But they do it already."
McConnell also said he will rearrange the NOFD's top leadership but did not immediately provide details about that.