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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Mike Connelly

Evansville Fire Department chief discusses his role and a busy last few months

Education: North Posey High School; National Fire Academy, certifications from Company Officer Development Institute and Safety Program Operations; Bachelor of Arts in Public Service, University of Southern Indiana

Resume: Engineering laboratory technician at the U.S. Naval Nuclear Power School, stationed in Great Lakes, Illinois, Orlando, Florida, and Idaho Falls, Idaho; firefighter (1994-present) and chief (2012-present), Evansville Fire Department

Hometown: Tacoma, Washington

Mike Connelly’s father was a police officer, but he says it was the fire station the family used to drive past that piqued his interest as a youngster. Years later, after his family relocated from the West Coast to Southwest Indiana, Connelly enlisted in the U.S. Navy and then decided to make firefighting his career. He’s done well — in a dozen years as chief of the Evansville Fire Department, his honors include being named the 2022 Fire Chief of the Year for the Great Lakes Division by the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

Connelly says it was his experience in the Navy, where he trained as a damage-control petty officer, that cemented his professional path.

“I saw the career opportunity with the fire department, and I took advantage of it,” he says.

Connelly spoke to Evansville Business recently about his role as chief and the busy last few months the Evansville Fire Department has experienced.

EB: What’s the biggest challenge in leading a fire department this size?

There are a whole lot of moving parts. Trying to get everybody aligned and focused on the same goal is probably one of the biggest obstacles. Funding for projects is an issue. You can’t do everything you want to do. Ensuring the safety of the members is paramount. That’s the No. 1 priority. We do achieve that to some degree, but there are always bumps and bruises with strains and sprains along the way.

EB: Over the last year, the Evansville Fire Department has responded to a deadly house explosion as well as two huge warehouse fires and the recent fire at Pearl Cleaners’ former Downtown location. In your 12 years as chief, has this been the most hectic period?

It certainly has added to my to-do list. When there’s a large response like that, there’s a lot more equipment and expense involved. On my end, I need to worry about who’s being called in to backfill overtime or calling people off duty to come and man the rest of the city during a major warehouse fire. I also ensure that my members are able to operate safely on scene and without interruption. So, in many cases, I will run interference, for lack of a better term, with the media to give them the information they need so that they won’t bother my guys while they’re out there doing the work. I also coordinate the resources. It is incumbent on the fire chief to take charge during major incidents when other agencies come into town. It’s really been a great growth spurt for me and my leadership experience to have assisted in managing those incidents.

EB: What did you learn about your department during and after those large incidents?

What I learned — I mean, I always thought it, but to see it in action confirmed it for me — was that these guys are ready to go at a moment’s notice, to do what needs to be done under any circumstance. I’d put these guys against any department around the country.

EB: How do you plan to address the condition of aging stations?

The average age of a fire station in the U.S. today is 40 years. We’re not alone in trying to update our facilities. There are a lot of factors that need to be considered today that were not considered before when they built a fire station, including separation of the apparatus bay from the living area, to reduce the exposure of the firefighters to exhaust fumes from the vehicles. We’ve done a good job in trying to reduce the exposure by installing source capture exhaust systems in every fire station because of a federal grant from FEMA. So, even though we’re not able to update all our facilities, we are taking measures to protect our members.

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