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McDonald takes command as new Palos Fire Protection chief

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By Anthony Caciopo

Regional News Editor

Talk with new Palos Fire Protection District Chief Michael McDonald about his job and it’s easy to hear the passion.

“I love this department,” he’ll tell you. “I’m honored to be part of this department. I look forward to going to work. I don’t consider it a job.”

McDonald took the helm of the Palos Fire Protection District June 29, assuming command from now-former Chief James Graben, who retired. Graben was profiled in the July 5 edition of The Regional.

And McDonald said he didn’t have any real aspirations to lead the department, at least not until recently.

“To be honest with you, I’ve was always comfortable in the spot I was in,” he said, referring to his previous position as deputy chief and shift commander before that.

“I always thought the chief would be the chief,” he said of Graben’s 38-year tenure with the District, which started when Graben became a volunteer firefighter while still a teenager.

McDonald hired on with the Palos Fire Protection District as a part-timer in 1989 after a totally random encounter in Palos Park as he drove past Station 1 on West 123rd Street in Palos Park.

“It’s kind of funny. I saw a sign on the marquis. It said they were looking for volunteers. I said ‘I’d like to do that.’”McDonald had a solid career at that time, fixing computers, employed by the Midwest Stock Exchange and flying around the country doing repairs.

“This (a job in the fire service) was something totally, totally different,” he said.

McDonald’s application was accepted by the District. He went through the fire training academy and was hired.

“I’ve always worked two jobs my whole life,” McDonald said. “The next year, I went and worked for the Palos Heights Fire Protection District, for 17 years.

“Basically, I just came through the ranks,” he explained, and pointed out a situation in the firefighting industry that is markedly different these days than when he was hired.

“We have difficulty getting people,” McDonald said, and it’s not just limited to the Palos area.

“All across the country, at the seminars and fire conferences, everybody has indicated they’re having a hard time getting people.”

McDonald, who ran the District 2 training academy for many years, said that attracting a new generation of people to the fire service will be one of his areas of focus as the new chief.

“When I ran the academy, we were flush with people,” he recalled. “As of late, it’s been challenging. Things have changed in the past ten years. We used to get traditionally blue-collar workers: plumbers, pipefitters, construction workers, anything to do with the trades. But even the trades are having a difficult time,” he said.

“It’s computers, computers, computers. We need to reach out to the grade schools, the high schools, let them know what we do and give them some options.”

McDonald was born and raised in Chicago, in the Back of The Yards and Roseland neighborhoods. He has three brothers and a sister. He attended Mendel, Fenger and Thornridge high schools.

McDonald is married to Jennifer (nee Markovich), who attended Sandburg High School. It’s his second marriage and the couple live locally.

As the new chief of the Palos Fire Protection District, McDonald spends much of his time concentrating on, simply stated, running the overall operations of the department.

His duties include, but are not limited to, administration, daily events, equipment outages, personnel and a certain amount of financial responsibility.

Becoming deputy chief, his most recent past position, threw him a bit of a curve ball with his long-time, traditional schedule of a fireman.

“I used to be out on the streets,” he said. “It was a big transition. The biggest change for me was time. As a fireman, we’d be working 24 hours on, 48 hours off. Now I’m here eight hours a day.”

Leading a department of 40 fulltime and part-time firefighters/paramedics, McDonald can’t say enough about his personnel, who run 3,000 calls per year.

“This is a great group of guys,” he said. “When that buzzer goes off, there’s nobody more professional.”

McDonald’s promotion to chief has come at an age which might raise an eyebrow or two. He’s 64. But he puts no stock in any conceptions—and misconceptions—about age.

“These guys keep me young,” he said. “It’s wonderful. You want to compete with these guys. I may not win, but I’m certainly in the ballgame. That’s what keeps me going.

“It’s a great thing, the energy, the commitment. We have a great relationship. Some people probably don’t even know how old I am. We all learn from each other. They get the opportunity to talk to an older guy. We may be different ages, or different everything, but we’re all the same,” McDonald said.

The Palos Fire Protection District has three boats and a specialty-trained dive team.

“We have people on hazmat teams, and we do rope rescue (high altitude),” he said.

Being part of MABAS (Mutual Aid Box Alarm System), “We’ve got all these specialty people together and we all work together.”

District boundaries are the Calumet-Sag Channel on the north, 135th Street on the south, Will-Cook Road on the west and 76th Avenue on the east.

The most memorable experience in his career, said McDonald, was the 1999 Amtrak crash in Bourbonnais, Illinois, that took the lives of 11 people when the train struck a truck loaded with steel at a grade crossing.

“There were hundreds of firemen there,” he said. “Our group was assigned to the sleeping cars. The fatalities were there.”

McDonald pauses as he recalls his experience that night, and offers no further details for the record.

But even in those grimmest times, McDonald calls his job gratifying.

“Every time we go out, even in a bad situation, you see some kind of a good outcome,” he said, perhaps reflecting on all the people who were rescued from the train that night.

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