Dan McNamara, one of the city’s best-known labor leaders, has stepped down as president of the Detroit Fire Fighters Association, a post he held for 11 years. McNamara, 59, chose not to run for re-election because he will have to retire from the Detroit Fire Department when he tuns 60 next year, which will fall midway through the two-year term.
A firefighter since 1977, McNamara has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Wayne State University. Shortly after becoming DFFA president in 2002, he was diagnosed with a blood cancer, which he has battled quietly while running the union through some of the most tumultuous times in city history.
The interview was conducted by Deadline Detroit's Bill McGraw at the union office last week. It has been edited for clarity and length.
DEADLINE DETROIT: There is no collective bargaining for city of Detroit unions these days. What is life like for a union president under an emergency manager?
DAN McNAMARA: “It’s horribly difficult. Horribly. For us not to be able to bargain, to be told things are being imposed -- financially, ok, we kind of understand. But when they’re going to impose things that are subjective in nature, and not financial, like seniority, they’re just using the emergency manager law to tear apart our contracts. In the past, we gave up pay to defend our health care and our pensions. We gave to this city, and someone walks in one day and says, ‘It’s gone.’ “
Seniority is the Detroit Fire Department’s unique system in which a firefighter moves up in the ranks only as fast as those above him retire or quit. The city has all sorts of consultants examining the fire department with an eye toward restructuring it. Will seniority survive?
“I don’t know if it will be changed. Seniority is the safest way for us to do our jobs. The only thing that seniority system needs is a continuing to focus on us getting our on-the-job training. I’m the biggest defender of the seniority system.”
Why should a smart firefighter with leadership ability have to wait 18-20 years to become a sergeant?
“Because they need that field experience. I absolutely believe our seniority system is what does it. Because otherwise you get one-year wonders. Our members are brilliant.”
You joined the Detroit Fire Department in 1977. What’s changed since then?
“Our firefighters are in the worst situation they could ever be in, but not a call goes unanswered. Every one of our engines has over 100,000 miles. We’re riding pieces of crap. We’re wearing horrible gear. Since I came on in 1977, we’ve lost thirty-some companies. Now we have 887 firefighters. Then we had 1,400-1,500 at a minimum. The average age today is almost 45.”
You are from a family of firefighters, including a great-grandfather, two grandfathers and your father. Was it predetermined that you would fight fires?
“No. I didn’t know anything about the fire department. My dad would never come home and say, ‘Here’s the fires we fought today.’ In 1977, I took the test. I was going to U-M and working at Chatham Super Markets. I didn’t know anything about the job. My dad said, ‘Dan, if you want to know something, ask me. I am not going to try to steer you.’ That was really cool.”
What do you recall from your first days?
“I walked in and the officers were sitting around talking about how the city’s going bankrupt. This was in 1977. I was laid off three times, and almost a fourth.”
Did you ever come close to dying in a fire?
“We all do. Any Detroit firefighter who does their job does. We all have a come-to-Jesus moment, when you’re sleeping on your couch at home, and you bolt wide awake, and you think, you know, I could have got killed at that fire. Like all Detroit firefighters, I had a come-to-Jesus moment.”
“Regular fire. Trying to put an attic fire out, and we had a backdraft. Blew us all down the stairs.”
Do you miss fighting fires?
“Extremely. I enjoyed doing the work and I had the satisfaction of saving lives and saving property. You know, that’s what people pay their taxes for. I could remember so many apartment building fires where we save that building, and people could come back and live where they were living. You accomplish something every day. I don’t know if everyone in the world has that feeling."
For years you have said the city is “rolling the dice” by taking rigs out of service and lengthening response times, especially on busy nights. And they keep taking rigs out of service. There hasn’t been a catastrophe. But what happens night after night in the DFD?
“There’s a special place in hell for the people who made these decisions that I believe had compromised property and life. Since they closed 15 companies, there’s been at least 10 deaths of civilians with handicaps. We didn’t get there in time. When you don’t give us a chance to get someone out, that’s morally wrong. That’s a sin. A sin against the taxpayers.”
What are you going to do now before you retire?
“I have some time I’m going to take off, and evaluate my options, talk with my wife, and I’ll have a final decision of what I’m going to do. One thing I will not categorically do is go back in the fire-fighting division. I am probably the biggest advocate of the seniority system, done properly. And so it would be wrong for me, as a union officer, who hasn’t been in the field for along time, to be a front-line officer. Because seniority is about being safe. You can’t jeopardize the seniority system and go back.
What will your retirement be like with a partial pension, if that happens, as threatened, in bankruptcy?
“Whatever they cut, there’s also the health-care costs on top of that. To give me $125 a frickin’ month and go up on the exchange to buy health care that costs $800 to $1,000 a month. We have retired firefighters and cops, under the old plan, they’re making $800 to $1,000 a month. You’re going to have us living under bridges. With the financial hits, we have members who are calling their kids home from college now. There’s no future. And they are having trouble getting applicants for the new class. No one wants this job now. This used to be a destination fire department.”
Can you discuss your illness?
“I don’t want to focus on it.”
We’re not going to focus on it.
“In December 2002 I was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic syndrome, which is a cancer of the blood. What they told me was unless I found a donor I’d be dead in six months. My sister, Patty, matched. I was in U-M for three months. I had a stem-cell transplant. Now they say there are no signs of my cancer. I’m very fortunate. And I was fortunate to have a membership that allowed me to work through my illness while I served them the best I could. It humbled me and it helped me to believe in what I do.”