"I looked up to my uncle," McEldowney said. "He was the reason I eventually became a firefighter."
Uncle Bill's nephew finally made the big time last Friday, when he took the oath to become the new chief of the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue, becoming the highest ranking uniformed officer in the 310-member department that covers five municipalities: North Bergen, West New York, Union City, Weehawken and Guttenberg.
The 52-year-old McEldowney, a 32-year veteran of first the West New York Fire Department, then the NHRFR, replaces Edward Flood of Weehawken, who retired last month.
Ironically, Flood and McEldowney worked side by side since the NHRFR was instituted in 1999.
"I worked so closely with Chief Flood for the last five years that I didn't have to pick his mind to see what it was like to be the chief," said McEldowney, who took the oath from West New York Mayor Albio Sires in a ceremony last week. "We worked so well together, but I think we have different styles of management."
Flood and McEldowney were responsible for instituting the uniform policy that was implemented by the NHRFR, utilizing the different rules and regulations that were in place in the five separate local departments.
"I gave my ideas how I thought the regional could be better," McEldowney said. "I was the most experienced deputy chief in the department. I had been a deputy chief in West New York for the last 16 years prior to the regional being implemented. In fact, I think I've held almost every single position a firefighter could hold."
In his career, McEldowney was the chief of staff, the chief of operations and the chief of training. McEldowney was also named the North Hudson Fire Officer of the Year in 2001 and was the New Jersey Deputy Fire Chiefs' Association's (DFCA's) Fire Officer of the Year the same year, for his work with the regional. McEldowney serves as a regional vice-president for the New Jersey DFCA.
While he felt he was ready for the responsibility to take over for his friend and colleague Flood, McEldowney said the first few days of his new assignment was a little "awe inspiring."
"As the deputy chief, I was responsible for about 25 percent of the department," McEldowney said. "Now, it's 100 percent. There's a tremendous amount of work involved. It's much more administrative than I thought it would be, like tenfold. There are issues to deal with, like with the unions. The individual contracts from the different towns makes it more difficult to deal with."
In fact, both the North Hudson Firefighters Association and the North Hudson Fire Officials Association have been working without a unified contract since the regional was put into place in 1999. Negotiations reached an impasse, and a state-appointed arbitrator made a ruling on a contract that is still being reviewed by attorneys from all sides because of the ruling's intricate legal language.
"There are a lot of issues out there that need to be addressed," McEldowney said. "There are vacations, schedules, salary structure. We've come a long way since we started in 1999, but we have a way to go."
McEldowney said that he was happy to share in the day with his wife of 22 years, Frances, his daughter, Brie, and his mother, Huldah.
"My daughter even made a speech," McEldowney said. "I was very proud of her. Any time you get a promotion, it's a special time, but this really meant a lot to me because of how far I've come. It's a tremendous challenge. It's very difficult, but I enjoy every part of it."
McEldowney was asked if he ever aspired to become the chief of one of the largest fire departments in New Jersey.
"I still don't think it's totally sunk in," McEldowney said. "Part of me still can't believe it. I had no idea this could happen. It wasn't even in my wildest imagination. I just wanted to be the best firefighter I could be."
McEldowney takes over as a provisional chief. He has to pass the state-certified Department of Personnel exam for a fire chief later this year.