Bowser names her pick for DC’s new fire chief

Assistant Fire Chief John Donnelly speaking at a news conference Sept. 4, 2020. (Courtesy D.C. mayor’s office)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser has named her pick for D.C.’s new fire chief.

Bowser is nominating Assistant Chief John Donnelly to take over the D.C. Fire and EMS Department, she announced at a news conference Friday from Fire Engine 2 in downtown D.C.

D.C. Fire Chief Gregory Dean, who took over the department five-and-a-half years ago and was praised for turning around a struggling department, is retiring.

Bowser praised Dean for revamping the department when he took over in 2015, pointing to his efforts to improve the department’s vehicle fleet, transforming the department’s cadet program to hire more D.C. residents, and the spearheading of community initiatives, such as the “Hands on Heart” program that provides CPR training to everyday citizens.

Bowser, who hired Dean from outside the department citing the need for a “fresh start in leadership,” said it was a testament to Dean’s tenure that she was able to recruit from within the department for his successor.

Donnelly, who currently leads the professional development bureau where he is responsible for the human resources division, is a 28-year veteran of the department. Over his career, he has served as an EMT, paramedic, firefighter and an officer.

His nomination will go before the D.C. Council for approval.

Of his predecessor, Donnelly said, “He has left big shoes to fill. I’m glad to say that I learned a lot about grace and courage from him.”

Donnelly said working for D.C. Fire and EMS “had been my dream,” and when asked to reflect on his first day with the department in the early 1990s and whether he ever foresaw himself one day taking the reins, he replied, “I had no clue one day I could become the fire and EMS chief; I was just worried about not messing up that first day.”

Bowser hired Dean in March 2015, following a nationwide search for a leader for the department, which had struggled with ambulance shortages, declining staff and sluggish response times for emergency services. In one notable and embarrassing incident in 2013, an ambulance called to the White House ran out of gas.

“My team and I searched coast to coast to find someone up to the task, someone who could modernize our department … and who could ensure we were equipped to meet the needs of a growing city, a changing city and would have the trust of our residents,” Bowser said Friday. “And we found that person in Gregory Dean.”

D.C. Fire Chief Gregory announced his retirement Friday. (Courtesy D.C. Fire and EMS)

Dean, who had spent a decade leading the Seattle fire department, acknowledged he inherited some challenges in D.C.

“But when you looked at the core of the organization, it was a great organization,” he said. “We organized. We became a team together, and we made decisions together. And that’s what you see today.”

Just days into the job, tragedy struck, when firefighter Kevin McRae collapsed and died in May 2015 after battling a blaze.

“What I learned about this department in that short amount of time is really what made it easy for me to stay and do my job,” Dean said.

He said he realized he had “come to a place that felt like family,” adding, “It was a terrible loss losing Kevin McRae … But in those trying moments, you learn a lot about people. And what I learned is that this is a great organization.”

Dean, 70, who has had a 50-year career in the fire service, said he was considering retiring in May but decided to hold off because of the coronavirus pandemic. “It didn’t seem the right time,” he said.

He decided to leave now because the department is putting together its budget for the upcoming year.

“I’ll always believe that whoever is the chief should drive their budget,” Dean said. “We’re getting ready to start the new fiscal year. And so, Chief Donnelly gets to put his fingerprints on the budget that will lead this department.”

Asked to offer advice to his successor and the department, Dean said: “If we take care of each other and we take care of our residents, life is pretty easy. We have a saying here, it doesn’t matter if it’s 4 o’clock in the afternoon or 4 o’clock in the morning, we’re going to treat everybody just like they’re family. And as long as we continue to do that, the sky’s the limit.”

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