The Firebrand

You don’t need to believe Kelly to see there are very real reasons Local 718 thinks the entire city is out to get it.

Commissioner Fraser himself has called the state of the department’s vehicles deplorable. Spares are in service 90 percent of the time. When a ladder truck in Hyde Park went out of commission last year, there was no replacement available for the firehouse and no other truck available in the neighborhood. Over in Mission Hill, a different ladder truck lost its brakes and crashed into a building. The department’s chemist couldn’t respond to a chemical fire in East Boston late this April because there wasn’t a vehicle available; he had to call the cops and ask for a ride. What’s more, the department’s training smokehouse on Moon Island was condemned six years ago. The city didn’t start construction on a new one until September 2007, and it won’t be ready until this month. Neighborhoods haven’t gotten a single new firehouse while Menino’s been in office. And there’s been talk of—but no action on—replacing fire department headquarters for nearly as long.

Kelly says the city has also neglected training for firefighters, leaving the union to take it upon itself to conduct hazardous-material and technical-rescue exercises before the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Union members now scour the city for abandoned buildings in which to stage advanced training sessions. One such structure was an old nursing home in West Roxbury, from which firefighters were evicted in September 2007. They moved to another abandoned nursing home, in Brighton; this one is full of rats, but jakes still train there. (“You ever smell a nursing home?” asks Paris, the union VP. “They still smell when they’re abandoned.”) The union went “dumpster diving” through Fidelity’s trash, Paris says, and scavenged rugs, curtains, chairs, and desks to fill an abandoned building Harvard owns in Brighton. Union carpenters and sprinkler fitters donated labor to build the space out. Then Harvard decreed in February the firefighters had to be gone by September.

“This is our guys not getting paid any extra money to do all this crap,” Kelly says. “We’re doing the best we can so we can respond to and protect this city the way it ought to be. However, the mayor doesn’t seem to give two shits. Whenever the time comes to spend money on the fire department, it’s ‘No, no, no.'”

Instead of firefighters training like hoboes, the city could’ve secured federal grants for a special-operations training building, Kelly says. But while the city budgets for six research and development staffers for the police department—two of whom do nothing but write grant applications chasing piles of state and federal dollars—the fire department doesn’t have any such staff. As a result, it missed out on its cut of roughly $78 million over the past eight years. Since 9/11, cops have received nearly $7 million in state and federal grants for every $1 million the fire department got, according to public safety figures from the city. Several city councilors scolded Fraser for these facts at a budget hearing in May. He didn’t argue. “It’s insulting,” Kelly says, adding it’s almost as if the mayor doesn’t understand the responsibility the fire department has to the city. If Menino did, “he would be coming to us.”

In 2005, Menino did come to the union. For a political endorsement. He was running for a fourth term, and when he asked for the union’s backing, Kelly—who’d just taken over as president—saw the chance for détente. “We decided [the department] needs to be fixed. It’s broken. The only way we could do it was through a partnership with the mayor.”

Getting the rank and file to give its blessing was “a tall order,” Kelly says. Paris adds, “We lobbied firehouses, and we took a beating for it. Guys told us, ‘He’s gonna screw us.'” Paris says that when the membership voted to endorse Menino, the mayor told the union, “Whatever you need, let me know. I’ll never forget what you did for me tonight.”

So when the union started contract talks in 2006, Kelly expected cooperation. “When we endorsed him, we weren’t looking for 21 percent pay raises,” he says. “We were looking for equipment, training. We wanted to get our job straightened out.” But all the while, he adds, “in the back of my head, I kind of figured he’d end up screwing us. Because he’s never done anything for this department. But it was worth a shot.”

That shot has, obviously enough, sailed wide. The negotiations were already at an impasse before the Tai Ho burned—by which point mediation was pending—and the drug testing question has only driven the two sides further apart. Rather than peace and partnership, Menino’s fourth term has been marked by a sloppy death waltz with Local 718. The union, not surprisingly, faults its partner in that dance.