Interim fire chief aims to steady department amid harassment lawsuits

Nearly three decades ago, when Michael Mackey of Miami was looking to begin his career as a firefighter, his father suggested he consider Palm Beach County Fire Rescue.

Mackey knew other municipal departments could offer better pay — as much as $10,000 per year more.

But Mackey’s father, an engineer with the city of Miami, knew Palm Beach County’s fire chief, Herman Brice, and he suggested that his son would be able to grow in a department he believed would thrive under Brice’s leadership.

In his first interview since being named interim chief on Jan. 12, the 49-year old Mackey said that advice from his father was some of the best he’s ever received.

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Mackey did grow at Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, taking on one task after another and steadily moving up the ranks of the department.

He was on a glide path to a quiet retirement when a sexual harassment and retaliation scandal engulfed the department, leading to the resignation of Chief Jeffrey Collins.

County Administrator Verdenia Baker, who says she will have zero tolerance for sexual harassment among county employees, accepted Collins’ resignation, which the former chief said was offered under duress.

Baker then looked for a steady hand, someone who would command respect in the department.

She tapped Mackey.

Mackey said he’s happy to take the helm of the department, although retirement is 14 months away as he has already enrolled in the state pension system’s DROP program. He will serve only as an interim chief.

“It’s not about me,” he told The Palm Beach Post in an exclusive interview in a conference room of Fire Rescue’s Pike Road headquarters, which is named in Brice’s honor. “I love Palm Beach County Fire Rescue. I want to make sure it’s a success.”

Mackey leads a department now buffeted by several lawsuits filed by employees who contend they were sexually harassed, assaulted or retaliated against when they looked into harassment allegations.

The Post was the first to report in December that Fire Rescue Capt. Amanda Vomero had filed suit against the department and the county, alleging that Division Chief Chris Hoch repeated sexual rumors about her and retaliated against her when she complained. That news story also noted a lawsuit filed by Vomero’s supervisor, Division Chief Joey Cooper, who alleged that Collins retaliated against him after he testified on Vomero’s behalf in an internal investigation of her complaint and after he attempted to investigate a complaint of sexual harassment made against Hoch by another female firefighter.

Hoch was given a written reprimand last year for violating county rules against harassment and retaliation in the workplace. He has denied all of the allegations against him.

Three days after resigning, Collins rescinded his resignation, saying Baker forced him to quit advance a “political agenda.”

Baker has not said whether she asked for Collins’ resignation, but she said no political agenda was at play in accepting it.

On Thursday, Mackey fired Hoch and accepted the resignation of Deputy Chief Thomas Tolbert, whom Vomero accuses in her lawsuit of joining Hoch in ridiculing her. On Friday, Mackey named Chief Douglas McGlynn as deputy chief of operations. Chief Patrick Kennedy was named division chief of operations, and Battalion Chief Tracey Adams was named district chief of Battalion 5.

In a letter to Fire Rescue staff Friday, Mackey wrote: “We want each and every one of you to know that, despite the short time frame in which we had to make these important decisions, they were not made lightly. I have been reflecting over the past few days about where we are headed and how we can get there. I want all of our great employees to know that I am absolutely certain that Chief McGlynn, Chief Kennedy and Chief Adams are phenomenal leaders, movitators and team builders. This is our department. We are a team and we are moving forward. We have much more work to do in the coming days, so I ask every member of our team to encourage each other in order to keep this transition moving smoothly.”

Mindful of the possibility that Collins will file suit — he said Jan. 19 that he wants his job back — Baker has been circumspect in discussing the leadership changes at Fire Rescue, saying only that she is “looking to move in a different direction.”

She praised Mackey as a decorated veteran of the department who will help her in the search for a permanent chief.

Commissioner Dave Kerner joined in that praise of Mackey.

“I commend the county administrator’s decision on Chief Mackey,” Kerner said. “I know him, and I know him to be effective, diplomatic and that he brings a wealth of knowledge and experience. I also know that he is well respected both by his peers and the men and women in the stations.”

Mackey’s personnel file, obtained by The Post through a records request, is studded with letters from people who wrote to Fire Rescue thanking him and his colleagues for their help in one emergency or another.

One such emergency occurred on April 6, 2004. A New Jersey doctor was visiting a friend in Boca Raton and began having a heart attack.

“The only thing I remembered is a smashing blow to my chest,” the doctor, Morton A. Beer, wrote to Mackey’s battalion chief at the time, Joe Hernandez. “My eyes then opened, and I saw four young men looking down at me. They obviously converted my heart beat to a normal sinus rhythm. Needless to say, this saved my life.”

The doctor wrote that Mackey and his colleagues were “well trained and well versed in their job.”

“Without them, I wold not be here now,” the doctor wrote. “I write this as an 83-year old veteran of World War II who served as a Capt. in the Army Medical Corps. Please give each of them a kiss from me.”

Mackey began his career as a firefighter making $7.34 per hour, became a paramedic and started a methodical climb up Fire Rescue’s organizational chart of leadership. He’s now on top of that chart; the promotion from deputy chief to interim chief increased his annual salary to $207,979 from $189,072.

As he climbed the ranks, supervisors noted on annual reviews that Mackey was diligent, willing to learn and lead.

In a three-and-a-half minute video he had filmed to introduce himself to Fire Rescue personnel as their interim chief, he stressed his love of the department and his respect for those who serve in it.

Neither in the video nor in his interview with The Post did he mention the sexual harassment scandal. He did not answer questions about the scandal, citing the potential for it to result in legal action.

“We have an elite group of men and women that do an extraordinary job,” he said in the video. “That’s what we need to highlight. That’s what we need to showcase. That’s what we need to be talking about. This is a time for all of us to come together and work as a unit, as a cohesive group.”

Mackey also mentioned a factor he said he took with him on each move up the career ladder: integrity.

“I have spent my entire career working on my integrity,” he said in the video. “That is not something that happens overnight. That’s something that happens every shift. That’s knowing your protocols. That’s knowing your job.”

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