The New Orleans Fire department has been busy lately. So far in 2016 there has been a six-alarm fire at a pair of historic buildings on Canal Street and more recently, smaller fires at Fiorella’s and The Presbytere in the French Quarter – and those are just some of the high-profile incidents. Leading the department through all this is Timothy McConnell, the 11th NOFD superintendent who has been with the department for 32 years, but he still insists that it’s the firefighters who “make him look good.” Described as “a firefighter’s firefighter” by Mayor Landrieu, the New Orleans native says he “eats, sleeps and breathes” the city, owns every Jazz Fest poster and refuses to eat at chain restaurants. We spoke to McConnell in his Uptown home that’s 125 years old – coincidentally, the same age as the NOFD.
Q: Where did you grow up? I’m originally from the 3rd Ward, the Mid-City area, but we moved to Metairie because we had seven kids living in half a shotgun. When I lived in Metairie it was like the sticks; there was hunting in the backyard. The minute I graduated from high school I moved to New Orleans and have never left. My parents just glorified New Orleans to us so much, and rightfully so.
Q: Did you ever imagine yourself in a leadership role with the NOFD? I didn’t imagine I’d ever be the chief of the NOFD. Katrina was one of those things that made me realize I had the ability and the opportunity. As horrible as Katrina was, it gave the first responders in this city the opportunity to really pull together more cohesively than they ever did. The police and fire department worked as one, and we still work that way more than we ever had before.
We had lost 22 out of 33 fire stations to flooding after Katrina, and others had significant damage from the storm. I asked them to let me take on the project of renovating them. It really took a life of its own; we wound up renovating 20 fire stations. It proves that pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is really important in life. You can sit around and wait for somebody else to do something, or you can take on something and do it.
When people started seeing work on the firehouses, they’d say, “Hey, what are y’all doing? You coming back?” It had a real effect of people seeing, the community is coming back, and I’d like to think I played a part.
Q: What are some of the unique challenges that face the New Orleans Fire Department? It is a challenge in the type of properties we protect, and the NOFD always rises to the challenge. Other departments probably wouldn’t like me saying this, but I believe we have the best workforce in the city. They respond very quickly and do a fantastic job. I’m very fortunate: the firefighters make me look really good.
It’s a significant thing when you think about the history of the city and what the firefighters do and the challenges they have. It’s an old city. You can walk outside and see that the houses are six feet apart. And firefighters knowing where to attack the fire is important.
One of the things we’re trying to do is focus more and more on prevention. You read our mission statement, and it doesn’t say to fight fires; it says to reduce incidents of loss and life to property and civilians and firefighters. So it’s our firefighters who risk injury and death, as well as citizens.
But when you think of the fact that the city had two massive fires early in its history in the late 1700s – they burned almost half of the French Quarter. But the result wasn’t growing and putting a huge fire department in place, it was changing the building codes. People started putting brick walls in between properties, and today that helps us still prevent the spread of fire. Today we think along the same lines. I’d like to think we’ll get some better codes out of the Canal Street fire to protect the citizens.
Q: What else are you involved with in your spare time? I love this city. I eat, sleep and breathe this city. I don’t eat at chain restaurants; I don’t eat at restaurants outside New Orleans, unless my family makes me occasionally. If we’re out in Metairie, it better be a family-owned restaurant. So my passion is doing the things that would help support the city, and when I enjoy myself it’s usually out at a festival. When I was a young firefighter everyone knew not to take their vacations on Jazz Fest – firefighters pick their vacations by seniority. Everyone said, “Don’t pick that, it’s McConnell’s vacation.”
Occupation: Superintendent, New Orleans Fire Department Age: 55 Born/raised: Mid-City/Metairie Family: wife Beth McConnell Education: Archbishop Rummel High School Favorite book: Martin Luther King Jr.: A Life Favorite movie: To Kill a Mockingbird Favorite band/musician: Old jazz classics like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald Favorite New Orleans restaurant: Commander’s Palace Favorite vacation spot: “You’re going to think it’s corny, but it’s New Orleans. My wife and I have done ‘secret vacations’ where we tell people we’re leaving town and we stay here. We did that for our honeymoon.”
I get a lot of credit, and I don’t deserve it. Without the firefighters and my wife – well, I couldn’t do what I do if it weren’t for her, and I mean that. They say behind every man’s a great woman, and it really holds true.