City council committee backs Healey for fire chief

Published 6:25 am Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A City Council committee on Tuesday recommended that Michael “Mickey” Healey, a 36-year-old firefighter from Portage, Mich., become Austin’s newest fire chief.

If Healey does in fact become the city’s fire chief, he will be the first person hired from outside the Austin Fire Department to fill the role in at least 70 years.

But for that to happen, the full council still has to approve of Healey. That could happen on Monday, when council is next scheduled to meet and to vote on the matter. With the three-member fire committee supporting Healey unanimously, only one more affirmative vote would be needed to reach the four required for a majority.

If a majority is reached, the city will extend a job offer to Healey, contingent on him passing both a physical and a psychological examination.

Healey, a 17-year veteran of the fire service who has spent his entire career to date in southwestern Michigan, was among three finalists interviewed by the fire committee Tuesday.

Given the department’s recent controversies, most notably the investigation into former chief Dan Wilson for allegations of creating a hostile workplace, it was no surprise that the committee focused its questioning around the issues of staff morale, command structure and training.

In fact, one question was derived directly from a report written by the attorney who handled the Wilson investigation. Though allegations against Wilson were dropped and no charges ever filed, the report did highlight problems with firefighters circumventing in-house command and going straight to council members with personnel issues.

When asked what he’d do if this continued to happen, Healey admitted that it would be unrealistic to expect someone to bring a complete stop to it. However, he noted that he’d strive to have a very “open-door” approach to the job, which he said would hopefully encourage staff to bring their problems to him, not the City Council.

Healey also touched on training during his interview, saying that breaking the staff into smaller groups before sessions would be helpful, because more hands-on learning could occur.

Along those lines, Healey said he’d make a point of having full-time firefighters train alongside paid on-call staff, in an effort to bring more unity to the two groups that make up the AFD. Healey also said he’d push for paid on-call staff, who carry pagers and work on a part-time basis, to have more opportunities to come into the station to see what the full-time staff does day-to-day. Ultimately, Healey said he’d like to foster a sense of respect between all Austin firefighters.

“They all want the fire service to grow,” he added.

For Healey, the idea of respect within the fire station runs deep — he said previously that he is a fourth generation firefighter, and already two of his young children have expressed an interest to follow in dad’s footsteps.

“(Fire fighting) has pretty much flowed through my family,” Healey said.

The Michigan firefighter said he loves his job because it offers him so many different opportunities day-to-day, from responding to calls to training younger firefighters to interacting with the public.

“It has so many different variables,” Healey said of the job.

Because of that passion, Healey has said he could see himself working in the fire service for the rest of his life and, he hopes, in southeastern Minnesota.

“I’m excited about the possibility of working in the city of Austin,” Healey said during his interview Tuesday.

On Monday, that could become reality.