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Lansing's ‘blue-collar chief’

Mackey takes reins at fire department


Before Mike Mackey started as chief of the Lansing Fire Department last week, he oversaw a department that covered nearly 1.5 million residents over 1,800 square miles in Palm Beach County, Florida.

The city of Lansing is a much smaller pond: about 116,000 residents over 37 square miles. So, how did Lansing attract him?

“When you get into larger organizations, you tend to lose contact with the firefighters, the men and women in the field,” Mackey said. “I’ve always enjoyed that. Coming here, I’m going to be able to hit all the stations, train with the men and women and go on calls with them. Professionally, I think it’ll be a great fit.”

Mackey, 50, is a self-described “blue-collar chief.” He follows two interim chiefs appointed by Mayor Andy Schor after Randy Talifarro resigned last year.

Mackey, who was one of nine candidates, is paid $124,471 annually.

“I haven’t met a single person that I haven’t liked here,” Mackey said in an exclusive interview with City Pulse. “There really is a truth about this Midwestern charm. People are just so nice. I couldn’t get over it."

"This is a blue-collar, working-class department. That’s who I am. I’m not afraid to roll up my sleeves and get dirty.”

Shifting from a department as large as Palm Beach County’s should be a simple transition, Mackey explained. The entire Lansing department is comparable in size to a single battalion at his old job. And that’s the work that Mackey seems to enjoys the most. His leadership is best on the ground floor.

“We had gone through some difficult times,” said Steve Jerauld, a former fire chief there. “Mike came in with just the right temperament and brought this sense of humility to the job. It was never about him at all, and you could really see that in the way he handled himself. His focus was always on doing the right thing.”

Jerauld’s successor, Jeff Collins, stepped down in January 2018 amid accusations that the department fostered a culture of sexual harassment and racism. Mackey, who came up through the ranks over 31 years before retiring last month, was selected as the interim chief to help guide a “period of healing” and take the department in a “different direction,” explained Nancy Bolton, a Palm Beach County government executive.

“I’ve heard through the grapevine that Lansing is facing some of the same diversity issues — which is not unusual in this field,” Bolton added. “He was able to negotiate diversity language and support some affirmative action measures with the union. He promoted a number of African Americans and women in his short tenure.

“Mackey really was a champion for diversity, and I think he’ll bring some positive change to Lansing.”

Lansing’s department has dealt with its own racial tensions. Last year’s class of firefighters lacked any women or African Americans. A federal racial discrimination lawsuit levied against the department continues. Solutions are still a work in progress.

Mackey noted his earlier post as division chief of operations kept him largely away from department leadership. “It was just about being more open, transparent, honest, broad-minded and really bringing in people from various backgrounds.”

Mackey played a role in hiring as his successor the first African American in that post, Bolton said.  She also described Mackey as a “clean-cut, person of faith” and “just a terrific human being” with a spotless disciplinary record after decades on the job.

“He really doesn’t consider race or gender, but rather the character and the qualifications,” Bolton added.

Why Lansing?

“My wife wanted the four seasons,” Mackey said. “Growing up in Miami, I didn’t know anything about that, but I promised her that when I retired, we’d do that. She wanted to move somewhere where it was colder. This was a perfect fit for us. When you line up your personal and professional life together, that’s a slam dunk.”

Mackey is living downtown while he waits for his youngest daughter to finish high school in Florida. His wife, Holly, and their three daughters plan to move up this summer. While many would opt for a tropical retirement in Florida, Mackey is ready for the change. And he’s not ready to stop working.

“I think the fire service is such a great opportunity to help others,” Mackey said. “It just gives you a sense of satisfaction to turn around and help people who really need the help. There’s this sense of comraderie and fellowship in the fire department. It’s about this whole team concept. I just love it. I really love the work.”

And the work seemed to love Mackey in return. Doug McGlynn, deputy chief of operations in Palm Beach County, said Mackey always arrived early and always stayed late. He also routinely sent his non-essential employees home early ahead of the weekend to spend time with their families. His shoes won’t be easily filled.

“He would mop floors, vacuum carpets, and whenever we had picnic and barbeque celebrations for our employees and their families, he would always be seen serving potato salad or baked beans in the food line,” McGlynn noted. “It’s who he was made to be, to serve others in any capacity.”

Former Deputy Chief of Operations Mark Anderson, who helped train Mackey as a recruit, labeled him as a “standout” in his class. While others kept their heads down and did what they needed to do, Mackey excelled.

“We might not ever sit in the shade of the trees we plant, but Mike understood that very much,” Anderson added. “He always understood that people are the strength of any organization. It isn’t the buildings and the vehicles and the processes that make an organization great. It’s the people. Mike always invested in the people.”

Mackey’s first 90 days on the job will primarily be about listening to others and understanding his new role, he said. He wants to engage not only his staff, but also the community he looks to set priorities for the department for the next decade. The first step: Transforming the Fire Department into the “heart” of Lansing.

“We should be interacting in all aspects of the community,” Mackey added, noting he’d like to park fire engines outside the Cooley Law School Stadium during baseball and soccer games for public outreach. “I want to make sure we’re meeting the public’s expectations of this department and that we’re always adding value to the staff.”

Earlier this year, Schor outlined plans to attract more people of color to the Fire Department, but officials recognize those recruitment efforts — particularly among qualified minority candidates — can be a challenge. The applicant pool doesn’t always reflect a melting pot of diversity, Schor said.

“There is room, like in any organization, to improve on all levels,” Mackey added. “An employer would like to have a bigger applicant pool. It gives you options. Options are our friends. Having that larger applicant pool gives you more opportunities to bring in diversity and to bring in real talent. Why limit yourself at the onset?”

Mackey said a cadet program Schor has announced, paired with general outreach, will help residents discover the “hidden gem” of employment with his department.

“We need to make sure the faces of the Lansing Fire Department match our community,” Mackey emphasized.


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