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Los Alamos won’t feel quite the same without the man known affectionately as “Chief Mac” leading its fire department.
Douglas MacDonald has spent the last 17 of his 35-year fire service career at the helm of the Los Alamos Fire Department. He has proved a solid leader and source of pride to this community and is leaving a proud legacy behind as he prepares to retire in early July.
MacDonald’s sons are two of his biggest fans.
“As I look back, I can’t imagine having a better father,” oldest son Bryan MacDonald said. “He was always there for my brother and me, no matter how busy he was, and he showed us through personal example how important hard work, integrity, and compassion were. He has always been, and continues to be, my inspiration and role model.”
After attending his father’s retirement tribute at Fuller Lodge Monday, Kurt said, “I am reassured that he approached the fire department like he did his family.
“Growing up I never heard him say a disparaging word about anyone – whether or not they deserved it, and he always stressed the importance of education and mastery of knowledge,” Kurt said. “I am certain he did not care what my brother and I chose to do in life so long as we earned a quality education. Additionally, his decision-making processes in the fire department appear identical to those he made with us growing up.
“Regardless of what the request was he would analyze every possible contingency in such exacting detail that we could only patiently wait – sometimes for decades.”
Kurt describes his father as a profoundly dedicated people person, and for him and his brother, that meant he was a profoundly dedicated father, he said.
“Despite the hectic nature of his job, and the fact he was raising two boys alone, he would always prioritize our needs above all else that was going on,” Kurt said. “Like many firefighters, I am sure I don’t know half the sacrifices he made to make our lives better, but I sincerely appreciate them all. I am just thankful he is not retiring as our father – in that role he is utterly irreplaceable.”
New Mexico’s former U.S. Sen. Pete Domenici, now retired, has known MacDonald for many years. He expressed his congratulations and “whole-hearted thanks” to MacDonald, whom he describes as having had “a very distinguished career.”
“When Los Alamos needed you, you were there, most especially during the big fires,” Domenici said. “It was an honor to work with you in serving the people of New Mexico. I wish you the best of luck in your future and a happy retirement.”
Many residents remember MacDonald had been on the job more than 160 hours with only about 15 hours of sleep when he spoke at Duane Smith Auditorium during the first public meeting following the Cerro Grande Fire.
He felt such empathy for those who lost their homes that he apologized to the community for the fire. While the fire was started by another agency and its magnitude made it impossible to save every home, MacDonald and his firefighters did ensure no lives were lost.
There are so many proud memories, MacDonald said in recalling his years on the job.
“Without the employees and firefighters of the fire department nothing can be accomplished,” he said. “Perhaps as the leader I contributed, guided, directed and dreamed, however, the proudest moments all revolved around system and processes and relationships and people. When one sees the systems implemented working to the betterment of the firefighters, citizens and customers, how can one not be proud?”
MacDonald explained how when firefighters return from training sessions and share their experiences with others and their actions save the lives of others, then he knows he’s made a difference.
“Early on, actually 14 months into my career, the DOE manager went to a county council meeting and told council he never would have believed he would be in front of them telling them that the county could in fact operate a fire department competently; however, that was in fact what he was doing and that certainly was a proud moment, realized because of the team,” MacDonald said. “Becoming the first fire department with a population under 25,000 and one of the first five departments to be Internationally Accredited, twice, are certainly proud moments and realized because of our team.”
Coming from the position of being on notice of the department losing its medical licensure as a service to the establishment of a Paramedic Program and being recognized a leader in the State EMS service delivery system was certainly a proud moment and realized again because of the team, he said.
“Securing working relationships and agreements with the USFS and DOI for wildland firefighting where previously only adversarial and contentious involvement existed, was certainly a proud moment and realized because of our team,” MacDonald said. “Being identified by Sen. Domenici as ‘his or my’ fire chief was certainly a proud moment. Hiring quality folks such as Doug Tucker, building succession and individual development programs for the success of our employees and watching them succeed were certainly a proud moments and realized by our team,” MacDonald said.
“Watching our firefighters beat the fiery dragon of the Cerro Grande Fire and saving this community and the national laboratory was a proud moment and realized because of our team.”
Becoming the first fire department to receive the New Mexico Quality Pinion Award twice was a proud moment and also realized because of the team, he said. Becoming the first and only fire department in the State to be an ISO Class I fire department was a proud moment and realized through the team’s efforts.
“Completing the Cooperative Agreement after so many had said it could not be accomplished was certainly a proud moment and realized because of our team,” MacDonald said.
“However, if I have to pick the proudest moment, without a doubt it is that through all the good and bad, the horrendous political and organizational stressors and pressures and all the success of the department, our employees and myself; I was always supported 100 percent by Lauren and that is my proudest moment.”
Lauren Earles and MacDonald have been together for the last 18 years.
His biggest challenge, MacDonald said, was not allowing the multitude of distracters, non-supporters, negativism, competing agendas, the tirade of masters and the like to get in the way of the vision, mission and value sets where he knew the department needed to be.
“There is only one person with whom I am accountable for my actions from a moral, ethical and integrity profile and if I can’t look myself in a mirror and say I did my best and with honor – then I have done nothing,” MacDonald said.
“Frankly, I believe our firefighters and I have done much.”
Deputy Fire Chief Doug Tucker has worked with MacDonald for years.
“Chief Mac is a visionary leader, who with his undeniable intellect re-created the Los Alamos Fire Department 17 years ago from an ordinary department to an extraordinary department, and I have had the great fortune of being by his side for 15 of those years,” Tucker said.
“Under Mac’s leadership, the department was given great and numerous opportunities to be the best that we could be and that is evidenced by the accomplishments the department has achieved. We were the first fire department in the state of New Mexico to become an ISO Class 1 Department – in fact, one of the very few in the nation.”
The LAFD was one of the first fire departments in the world to be accredited through the Commission on Fire Accreditation International and is currently in the process of achieving its third accreditation, he said.
“During the Cerro Grande Fire, Mac displayed his unrelenting leadership capabilities and rose to the occasion as a true professional,” Tucker said. “After the Cerro Grande Fire, Chief Mac traveled the world sharing our ‘lessons learned’ so others could benefit from what we had experienced.”
MacDonald went on to work with the International Association of Fire Chiefs to establish a working group to deal with Wildland Urban Interface Fires, Tucker said, and intends to continue on the team following his retirement to work with other experts to reduce the impact of major wildland fires to communities across the world.
“Mac’s unassuming demeanor, infectious laughter, caring attitude and selflessness certainly awed and inspired me both on a professional and personal level,” Tucker said. “I would be remiss if I didn’t say that I will sorely miss his comradeship on the job. On a personal note, my wife Kelley and I would like to thank Mac and Lauren Earles for being so generous with our family. We cannot express our thanks for their endless efforts and support.”
Assistant Fire Chief/Fire Marshal Michael Thompson has worked along side MacDonald for several years as well and also spoke of his compassion towards others.
“I have appreciated his overall concern for people,” Thompson said. “In my case, he has always been there when I have needed him. I have also witnessed this in his dealings with others and in his decisions that are made regarding fire department policies. Many decisions have come down to what provides the greatest margin of safety for our crews and the community.”
Los Alamos County Administrator Max Baker described MacDonald as “an extremely good fire chief for Los Alamos County.”
“He has moved the fire department forward in very significant ways, including providing extraordinary leadership and competence during the Cerro Grande Fire, in achieving the highest rating possible for a fire department from the ISO and becoming one of the first fire departments in the world to receive accreditation status from the Center for Public Safety Excellence,” Baker said.
“He has always been determined to provide the best fire department service possible to Los Alamos National Laboratory and to the community. He has also volunteered a lot of his personal time to other worthwhile endeavors such as United Way and Las Cumbres Child and Family Services. He is simply ‘not your ordinary fire chief’. We congratulate him and thank him for all he has accomplished.”
Los Alamos Police Chief Wayne Torpy forged a close working relationship with his counterpart at the fire department that quickly developed into a hearty friendship, he said.
“When I moved here to become police chief in March 2005, Chief Mac embraced me from day one, familiarizing me to the relevant areas of local government and public safety,” Torpy said.
“He is a professional in every aspect of the word and is beyond my expectations of excellence. Mac’s not only been a professional pleasure to work with but he has become a great friend. As an example, when my mother died Mac was one of the first to get to me to see what I might need. While I won’t be able to work with him anymore, I’m so glad he will be staying in the area so at least I’ll be able to hang out with him.”
July 2 is MacDonald’s last day on the job and as he steps down, he wanted to express his appreciation to the people of Los Alamos.
“I thank our community for its unwavering trust and support of the LAFD and for me personally,” he said.
“Every time our community sees a firefighter they react with such an outpouring of respect and acceptance of us and I sincerely hope that we and I have responded in such a manner deserving of your confidence and trust. I leave a very strong department who’s firefighting and civilian staff are second to none in this state. Sleep well at night as you are in good hands.”
“I will miss the excitement, the challenges, the successes, the conflict, the failure and the lessons learned from such, the laughter and brotherhood, the respect, the influence, the emotion, but without question what I will miss the most are the relationships, friendships and people.”
MacDonald has earned numerous awards and commendations at the local, state and national level. His honors include receipt of the prestigious Fire House Magazine’s Heroism and Community Service Award. He has been internationally published in periodicals, trade magazines, IAFC publications and Public Entity Risk Institute White Papers. MacDonald also co-authored “Cerro Grande, Canyons of Fire, Spirit of Community.”