For someone who grew up wanting to be a cop, Jimmy McDonald has done pretty well as a firefighter.
So well, in fact, that as of 0800 hours on Jan. 20, McDonald officially took over as chief of the Lynn Fire Department, becoming the 18th man to lead the department in its 163-year history.
McDonald replaces Dennis Carmody, who is retiring after 30 years on the job, the last three as chief. Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy selected McDonald in November; he was sworn in on Jan. 22 at City Hall.
“It feels very good for the mayor to have placed her confidence in me,” McDonald said.
McDonald’s ascension to the top of the 188-member department is the crowning achievement in a 36-year career that has seen him rise steadily through the ranks, serving in every position: firefighter, lieutenant, captain, district chief and deputy chief.
“I’m an operations guy,” McDonald said. “I’ve always prided myself at being good out on the street. I never really had the motivation to move into the administrative part of the job, but once I became a district chief and then a deputy chief, I got a feel for it and thought I could do it if the opportunity arose.”
McDonald’s appointment has been met with unabashed enthusiasm from the rank and file.
“There is not a person on the job who doesn’t respect Jimmy as a man, a firefighter, an officer, a husband and father,” said Matt Reddy, president of Lynn Firefighters Union Local 739. “He has gone through every rank, so he has full knowledge of what every person’s job entails.”
The son of Eleanor (McGinn) and the late Tom McDonald, Jim grew up with his father, grandfather and uncle in the Lynn Police Department. He aspired to follow in their footsteps, and, after graduating from Lynn English in 1972, he took both the police and fire exams. His father, a vice squad detective, actually steered him in the direction of the fire department.
“After two weeks on the job, I knew this was exactly where I wanted to be,” said McDonald, who was hired in 1977. “There were a lot of fires at the time, so we were very busy. I had the opportunity to go on the police force in Lynn and a few other places, but I turned them all down. It was the best decision I ever made.”
McDonald was driving Engine 5 out of Fayette Street when it was the first apparatus on the scene of the second Great Lynn Fire on Nov. 28, 1981. “We figured we had about an hour’s worth of work,” he said of the conflagration, which started in the old Marshall’s Wharf building on Broad Street. The fire ended up destroying 18 buildings and damaging eight others, and firefighters were on the scene for 16 days.
McDonald was also a first responder to the Ben Crest rooming house fire in 1989 in which three people died, but many others were saved. “We were taking people out of there for an hour,” he said, recalling working with Buzzy Barton, Dave Coleman and Larry Pitcher. “We must have saved 20 people.”
McDonald was promoted to lieutenant in 1985, captain in 1996 and district chief in 2007. He was named acting deputy chief in January 2010 when Carmody was named acting chief, and served in that role for 19 months. He went back to district chief in August 2011 when Carmody became permanent chief, but because he and Carmody had tied for the top score on an assessment exam for chief in 2010, he remained at the top of the list for chief and the mayor selected him.
“Jim is a consummate professional and an excellent choice to lead the department at this time,” said Kennedy.
McDonald, who earned an associate’s degree in fire science from North Shore Community College in 1996, hopes to maintain the harmony the department has experienced under Carmody. “There’s no need to be contentious,” he said. “We’re all in the same situation. If the workforce is getting along with management, there is a greater likelihood of success.”
That does not mean McDonald will be a passive leader. “If I have something to say, I say it, and I’ve usually done my homework,” he said. “I make mistakes, but I don’t walk away from them; I own them. I think that has had a positive effect on my career and the opinion people have of me. They know what they’re getting.”
That would be someone who has the utmost passion for his profession.
“This job grows on you, it gets in your system,” he said. “It becomes part of you. It’s not what you do, it’s who you are.”
McDonald and his wife, Maryann, have two daughters, Cailey McCarthy and Mallia McDonald, and a granddaughter.