The Firebrand

The more Boston turns against its scandal-plagued firefighters, the further out on a limb Ed Kelly goes to defend them. Is the bombastic union boss as nuts as he seems? Or does he know a few things the rest of us don't?

ed kelly

Photo by George Rizer

Ed Kelly looks like hell, and everyone in Dorchester’s Florian Hall tells him as much. He doesn’t argue with the assessment. Heavy bags sit below his eyes, and his face, always ruddy, is even redder than usual. Instead of a crisp suit, which he normally dons while on union business for the fire department, he wears khakis and a polo shirt. On this sunny May morning, Kelly, the firefighters union president; his brother Sean, the union’s treasurer; and Rich Paris, its vice president, have squeezed around a small table in one of the hall’s cramped 8-by-8-foot conference rooms to explain why Local 718 isn’t the crooked, booze-soaked, obstructionist monster the public believes it to be. As Kelly talks—and he does most of the talking—his face flushes a deeper shade of crimson still.

The past few months have not been pleasant ones for Kelly. For the first time in Boston’s history, there’s political capital to be had in taking on the firefighters union. Fueled by a run of bad press that’s included the Tai Ho restaurant blaze in West Roxbury last August that killed two firefighters—one drunk, the second with cocaine in his system—and a federal investigation alleging jakes have retired on false disability claims, public sentiment demands Mayor Tom Menino and Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser exact contrition from the union. But contrition is a tough sell at the bargaining table, where for the past two years the city and the union have waged war over Local 718’s latest contract.

Despite the union members’ problems, Kelly has ceded nothing, sticking to his reputed demands for higher salaries and perks. He’s built like a boxer—stout frame, thick neck, big hands—and battles back with a pugilist’s mentality. His negotiating style is all attack, no tact. A sampling: “The mayor’s projected that he’s taking on the union to better the department, when the facts are he hasn’t done shit to better this department in the 15 years he’s been in.” It’s the way Local 718 has always gotten what it wants, by fighting, marching, chanting. The difference this time is that, post–Tai Ho, post–alleged disability fraud, the hard line is galling. Kelly, meanwhile, seems to be doing little more than making things worse.

“They’ve embarked on probably the worst campaign to sway the public ever seen in the history of time,” says a City Hall source with knowledge of the negotiations. “They couldn’t possibly have taken more wrong turns than they have.”

Unless they were the right ones. Maybe the problem isn’t that Kelly continues to yell, but that no one listens to his concerns. Maybe Menino is as Machiavellian as Kelly makes him out to be (not such a stretch, by the way). Maybe, just maybe, it’s everybody else who’s crazy.


Kelly comes from a firefighter family. Not only is his brother one, but their dad was, too, as was their grandfather. “We understand the risks involved, the potential to get hurt or killed on this job,” Kelly says. “But that’s traded off with the pride in what we’re doing, and the noble calling that it is…. And, God forbid, if you do get killed”—anger flashing in his voice here—”your sacrifice is respected by the citizens of this city.”

The rancor of the brawl Kelly’s now leading might itself stem from a different sense of obligation. “Firefighters, for the most part, expect a contract fight,” a second City Hall source says, noting that “ugly, nasty, terrible, bloody, spitting” disputes are a union hallmark. That last adjective references an episode in 2001, when one of the firefighters protesting at Mayor Menino’s State of the City address spat on his wife, Angela, as she and the mayor walked past the picket line and into Hancock Hall. Union members have also been known to stalk Menino as he goes from Christmas tree lighting to Christmas tree lighting, heckling him. At parades, while Menino marched, Local 718 members passed out pro-union stickers. Despite all this, the union has, more often than not, had its demands met come contract time. “There’s never been a rallying cry at City Hall to take on the fire department,” says Michael McCormack, a Boston lawyer and former city councilor. “There’s always been a respect for what they do, and a sense that you should give them a little more because of it.”

The scandals of the past 11 months have, of course, changed all that. After the autopsy results for Paul Cahill and Warren Payne, the firefighters killed in the Tai Ho blaze, were leaked, Menino moved to make drug and alcohol testing his top priority in contract talks. The union, in turn, promptly pulled out of a committee the mayor convened examining fire department reforms in December. The committee’s lone black firefighter refused to join the walkout, and the union threatened to expel him, which elicited charges of racism. In January—the same month the Globe first reported allegations that firefighters were gouging the city for fraudulent disability pensions—news surfaced that some firefighters had cheated on civil service exams. It went on. In March: A firefighter was charged with smoking marijuana in a department vehicle. In April: a second collared for allegedly buying OxyContin from a Southie drug dealer. In May: a third busted in a Blue Hill Avenue sex sting after allegedly offering an undercover police officer $29 for oral sex. Responding to this last bit of news, Kelly told the Globe, “I think that the pressures of working without a contract are beginning to manifest in the darnedest ways.”

But that assumes the job itself is taxing. Sam Tyler, president of the watchdog agency Boston Municipal Research Bureau, notes that many firefighters double up shifts: They’ll work two days and nights straight, then be off for the rest of the week. (Which further assumes these guys are working when they’re supposed to: More than one in five, to cite a recent example, called in sick on Memorial Day.) Firefighters prefer working two on and five off, Tyler says, because “most of them have other jobs.” While Kelly says jakes do this for the extra money, their contracts are not leaving them in poverty. In 2006, firefighters’ base pay averaged $71,247, easily besting police officers’ average base salary of $67,666—even after factoring in Quinn Bill benefits, which give pay bumps to cops who complete college degrees. Add in overtime, and firefighters’ total compensation averaged between roughly $85,000 and $120,000, figures that put Boston at the top of the top tier nationwide. No government agency assembles national statistics on firefighter pay, so a definitive ranking isn’t available. But Charlotte, a bigger union city with a smaller fire force, averages just under $50,000, with overtime. And most salaries in Baltimore, a union city with a slightly larger force, max out at around $60,000. To be paid $80,000 is “definitely high for us,” a Baltimore Fire Department spokesman says.

Last year the Boston Police Department faced an unfavorable negotiating environment similar to the fire department’s, with cops under investigation for drug trafficking and steroid abuse, and for partying with known prostitutes. The police union knew it couldn’t stage a vicious public fight, as it had in years past. So it traded enhanced drug testing, management reforms, and a modest 14 percent raise over four years for a loosening of the residency requirement that compels city employees to live in town, a policy the cops have long hated.

“The police didn’t push it,” Tyler says. “It was to their PR benefit not to be contentious.” By contrast, he says, “the firefighters are still
working off the old game plan,” i.e., the one that called for upstaging the mayor’s State of the City address in January. The following month they called a press conference to announce that the mayor didn’t seem to care if a liquefied natural gas tanker incinerated half of Boston while an underequipped fire department watched helplessly. They kept up the blitz in April, marching on the State House, demanding respect.

As he sits in the cramped Florian Hall conference room, Kelly says with a straight face that the union’s recent scandals have been twisted to serve a single purpose: “to bully us into an inferior contract,” so the city can save money. “The only time you read about alleged abuse and gaming of the system,” he says, “is when they’re trying to attack us, to put pressure on us at the bargaining table.” He says it happened in the 2001 contract negotiations, when the administration hit the union with a series of newspaper scoops about injured-leave abuse. Menino and staff did it again in 2004 by “leaking stories,” Kelly says, about sick leave. This time around, it’s the disability and pension fraud exclusives.

He contends the union’s reported opposition to drug and alcohol testing is a fabrication, too. “We’re not defending drug use,” Kelly says. “Think about the job we do. The guy on that hose had better have his shit together.” He goes on to complain, “Random drug testing became the absolute media-circus feeding frenzy. The mayor beat the crap out of us every chance. I’ve said no less than a hundred times, ‘We’re willing to negotiate random drug testing.’ They take that and spin it and say, ‘They want to get paid to do a drug test.'” Kelly recalls a recent conversation with Globe editorial board member Larry Harmon. “I go, ‘When is this shit gonna end?’ He says, ‘Ed, until you make a deal, the bad stories are gonna keep coming.'” (Harmon doesn’t remember the exchange, though he doesn’t deny it happened.)

Kelly also says the department’s board of inquiry report into the Tai Ho fire was rushed so it would be released before District Attorney Dan Conley finished his criminal investigation; because Conley’s inquiry was ongoing, the board itself didn’t have access to the firefighters’ autopsies. Fire Commissioner Fraser—a Menino appointee—then raised hell when the board’s report failed to address the dead firemen’s alleged intoxication. “That was another fucking media frenzy which was complete bullshit,” Kelly says. “The commissioner basically put the families through hell. I’m sure the commissioner was acting on orders from the mayor.” The District Attorney’s Office says the autopsy reports were available to the board, but that it never received a request for them.


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.


That contract talks have stalled is all the two sides agree on. Everything else from both parties reeks of mendacity. Take the drug screening issue: The city says Kelly’s union won’t talk about drug and alcohol testing, outside of demanding money for doing it. The union says in exchange for testing, it only wants a wellness program—which the Menino administration says basically amounts to paying firefighters to stay in shape. When Boston magazine relayed administration talking points to the union, they were angrily denounced as lies. When union claims were brought to City Hall, they were met with little more than laughter. Each camp insists the other refuses to talk.

Naturally, politics and personal ambition lurk just below the surface. The firefighters are perpetually in competition with the cops, with each trying to score the sweeter deal. Whoever settles their contract first establishes the baseline that the other must best. And because the fire department doesn’t have the Quinn Bill, it’s that much harder to get a better package. But the fire union has always managed exactly that—until now.

Kelly says he feels no pressure about living up to expectations because it’s not about the money; it’s about respect. His brother Sean, in his capacity as union officer, notably hedged when asked whether the firefighters would accept the same terms the police agreed to: drug testing, a more lenient residency mandate, and a 14 percent raise over four years. A City Hall source says Kelly’s union “looked at the patrolmen’s package, decided they wanted more, and rejected the dollar-for-dollar proposal. Then the West Roxbury fire happened.” The higher the stakes have gotten, the more Kelly has dug in. “They needed to do better than the cops without drug testing,” the source says. “If they get the same as the cops and they give away drug testing, they will have failed, from an internal standard.”

The union doesn’t like Menino, and Menino doesn’t like the union; this doesn’t help matters. “The mayor has a love-hate relationship with the fire department,” says a City Hall source with knowledge of the negotiations. “He’s never forgiven them” for spitting on his wife in 2001. Still, despite Kelly’s antics, Menino has met with him three times since the Tai Ho fire: twice in Menino’s office, and once in the historic Parkman House in Beacon Hill. Kelly says it was during this last meeting that he agreed to all the city’s reforms in exchange for the wellness program. But the city says the union merely used the meetings to try to delay mediation proceedings. Menino felt betrayed. And he’s not a man who looks kindly upon betrayal.

“They have this romantic attachment to meeting the mayor at the Parkman House,” says a City Hall insider. “Ed has this fantasy about hundreds of firefighters chanting in the streets outside.” Until that climactic tête-à-tête happens, city officials say, Kelly will be happy to continue delaying contract talks. The endgame is to align those negotiations with Menino’s campaign for a historic fifth term in office, and threaten to spoil Menino’s victory lap if he doesn’t settle on the union’s terms.

It isn’t as if Menino is enjoying himself here. “The city doesn’t want to continue” the back-and-forth, says McCormack, the former city councilor. But it won’t concede drug testing; it won’t pay firefighters to pee in a cup. “It would not be fair,” Menino spokeswoman Dot Joyce says. “And it’s simply not right.”
And it isn’t as if the jakes are enjoying this, either. Emotions are raw. Should-be heroes feel humiliated. The most likely resolution—binding arbitration—is at a judge’s discretion; it will probably be months before such a decision is reached.

“It’s wearing people down,” says Karen Miller, head of the Boston Society of Vulcans, the black and Hispanic firefighters’ organization. “There isn’t the excitement and joy there used to be, because they feel like everybody hates them.”

This, Paris definitely understands. “One day, I walked into Dunkin’ Donuts. Two people are sitting there, and I just felt it—they were looking at me, Fuckin’, what’s this kid, a phony? What is he? Drinking? It sucks, to tell you the truth. It hurts.” Kelly adds, “You can’t undo the damage that’s been done to our image. Morale is terrible. You talk to guys, and they’re embarrassed to wear a fire department shirt because they don’t want some guy to heckle them. ‘Oh, what? What? Why don’t you go do a drug?’ Or, ‘What are you, faking an injury or something?'”

But the thing is, Kelly’s members don’t fault him for the demoralizing shots they’ve taken, and they don’t fault him for fighting on. In May, Kelly won reelection as president. He ran unopposed and pulled more votes than any candidate ever had. The week before, he was elected as an officer in the statewide firefighters union. These victories, though, did little to buoy his outlook on Local 718’s prospects. And perhaps this is what the union wants: the endlessly aggrieved president, his hackles always raised.

When asked how things will play out if the almost inevitable arbitration goes wrong, Kelly replies, “I don’t see our department being any better….We’re gonna be the same dysfunctional, fucked-up department we were when we began negotiating in 2006, with shitty equipment, shitty facilities, inadequate training facilities.” It’s not for lack of trying, he says, wearily. “I’ve told our side of the story, but it hasn’t resonated. It’s been out-and-out twisted. I’ve been on NECN, Fox 25, Tom Finneran, anybody who’ll listen to us. I’m trying. I don’t know what else I can do, other than knock on doors.

“I hope guys haven’t lost their passion,” he continues. “I find myself being bitter sometimes, saying, ‘Screw these people if they don’t….'” Kelly trails off. Looks around the tiny room he’s in. Then he launches into a story about a fire he fought a decade ago. It was in Southie. Summertime. Took the guys most of the night to fight the blaze. Kelly got back to the station around 7:30 a.m. and, exhausted and still covered in soot, sprawled on a bench in front of the firehouse. People were walking by, coming from the commuter rail, he recalls, and a fellow jake told him, “Don’t lay down out front here. You’ll make us look bad.” “I said, ‘Isn’t it enough I’ll die for these motherfuckers, they can’t let me sit in the sun and take a deep breath?'” But Kelly went back inside anyway. Even today, he seems to resent having done that.