When Dennis O’Connell started working for the Fire Department in 1973, the Bronx was ‘burning’, and the FDNY dispatcher saw a lot happen in his native borough.
One thing O’Connell didn’t live to see was a street sign bare his name and as of Thursday, March 3 the sign proclaiming E. 180th Street between Devoe and Bronx Park avenues will also read “Supervising Fire Dispatcher Patrick O’Connell Place.”
The street is home to both Wings Academy High School, and the FDNY’s Bronx Communications Office, where O’Connell put in 37 years of work, guiding fire trucks through the streets of the borough.
O’Connell, of City Island, died in October 2008 at age 56 due to complications from a stroke. His very presence as a dispatcher in the FDNY served as a link from the modern era, to the time when he started on the job, when arson calls were routine.
“Those were the war years,” said fire alarm dispatcher and former colleague William Hahn. “The Bronx was in fact burning.”
Colleagues said O’Connell served as a role model to younger generations of fire department employees and had a reputation for dispatching tough love, as well as fire trucks.
“Back during the 1970s, I’m told you either knew your job or you didn’t work for long,” FDNY Chief of Communications Robert Boyce said at the ceremony. “And I know ‘Doc’ didn’t have a problem letting people know when they didn’t.”
Councilman Joel Rivera, who sponsored the street renaming bill in city council, said that renaming the street is a way of making O’Connell a role model for the entire Bronx community, not just the FDNY.
“Kids will look at this sign and say ‘who was this individual?’ Rivera said. “This can be an example for younger generations about what you can grow up to be.”
O’Connell was fully immersed in the culture of the FDNY and his son Sean O’Connell spoke at the sign’s unveiling, saying his father always referred to his co-workers as “the best guys around.”
“You were his family when he was away from home,” Sean told his father’s former firefighters.
O’Connell also played bagpipes in the FDNY Emerald Society Pipes and Drums. The group played “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” as Sean climbed atop an Engine 88 truck to unveil his father’s sign.
A first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Ireland, O’Connell was born in the Fordham area and and according to deputy director of dispatch operations and former colleague Henry Dingman, he always made the Bronx a priority in his life.
“He was truly a Bronx man, even though he had an appreciation for other boroughs,” Dingman said. “One of the things he used to do, when he was working in Queens, was whenever he drove by Shea Stadium he would call me and say ‘I just passed by Shea Stadium, that big purple toilet bowl.”