The Boston Fire Department Revolts Against Its Chief

The BFD's deputy fire chiefs accuse Steve Abraira of failing to take command on the ground—something he was known for at his previous post in Dallas.

The Herald has a great scoop today: In a letter addressed to Mayor Menino, all 13 of the Boston Fire Department’s deputy fire chiefs have declared that they have “no confidence” in Chief Steve Abraira. The deputy chiefs allege that Abraira all but disappeared on the day of the Marathon bombings, failing to take command of the scene. According to the Herald, the letter states:

“At a time when the City of Boston needed every first responder to take decisive action, Chief Abraira failed to get involved in operational decision-making or show any leadership. You can unequivocally consider this letter a vote of no confidence in Chief Abraira.”

The deputy chiefs also accuse Abraira of being a no-show last year when an electrical explosion in the Back Bay caused a city-wide blackout (remember that?) and at a six-alarm fire in East Boston. For his part, Abraira defends himself by saying that it’s by design that he doesn’t ride in and grab the reins: he wants his deputies to do their job. He told the Herald that he views his role as “administration.”

Now, for background’s sake, there are two important things to know about Abraira: 1) This is not his first controversy. 2) Not only is he the Boston Fire Department’s first Latino chief, he is its first chief hired from outside BFD ranks.

First, the controversy: in 2005, he resigned his post as Dallas fire chief after a clash with the City Manager. It went like this: the City Manager wanted to cut funding from the department (while budgeting in $400,000 for a study on the department’s management), Abraira objected, and the two couldn’t get over their differences. Abraira wrote a scathing letter explaining his decision to leave. Observers at the time saw Abraira’s downfall as a result of his unwillingness to win allies by playing the political game in Dallas. The Dallas Morning News reported this opinion from Mike Buehler, president of the Dallas Firefighters Association:

“He was sometimes overwhelmed by the politics in a city the size of Dallas,” Mr. Buehler said. “He had a very strict sense of chain of command and felt that the chain of command ran through the city manager. He never did take advantage of relationships with the council members, which ultimately would have been beneficial.

“This is Dallas, and if you don’t have council members backing you, you’re not going to last.”

James Ragland, a columnist for the paper, put it more bluntly: “Well, Mr. Abraira may have been a darn good fire chief—I certainly haven’t seen or heard anything to suggest otherwise—but he was a lousy politician.”

Abraira’s unwillingness to “play the game” stands out because, when he came to Boston, he was walking into a particularly challenging situation. In its story reporting his hiring from a stint in Palm Bay, Fla., in November 2011, the Globe wrote:

Steve Abraira, 56, will take over a fire department in Boston that has struggled with diversity. Abraira will not only be the first Hispanic to serve as chief, he will be the first leader the department has hired from outside its ranks.

For better or worse, the Boston Fire Department is old school. It’s got an awful lot of guys whose fathers were firefighters and, even today, looks an awful lot more like Old Boston than New Boston. There’s a long history of issues with diversity. And, as we know, in Boston, sometimes just coming from somewhere else pegs you as more of an outsider than your racial or ethnic background.

Abraira, by all accounts, was popular with his rank and file in Dallas. So what went wrong here? It’s not clear, but what we know is that we’ve got someone who doesn’t like politics—and isn’t afraid to butt heads—working in the most delicate of situations. Going back through some old Dallas Morning News coverage, one quote from a Dallas firefighter named Joe Betzel caught my eye:

He was more of a hands-on type guy than [former] Chief Miller. You’d see him at fires you wouldn’t think he would be at, not just big multiple-alarm fires. We always used to kid around with each other that for Dodd Miller to try to find your fire station, he’d have to have a Mapsco to find you.”

So, in Dallas, Abraira was known for the very thing that his deputy chiefs here in Boston are accusing him of not doing today. He told the Herald that he’s made the changes to bring the department to comply with “national standards,” but we can’t help but wonder if there’s more to it.