Why Boston Fire Department Reform Is Never A BFD

Today, the second in command of the Boston Fire Department (BFD), Chief Steve Abraira, resigned—essentially because the people who work for him don’t like him. You won’t likely hear much from the city’s mayoral candidates speaking up about this rather important situation; I feel pretty confident predicting this lack of response because the campaigns I contacted last week for comment about the developing BFD situation pretty much ducked like I was lobbing a grenade.

The BFD is a mightily screwed-up department—in my opinion, the most reform-needy part of the city’s government. Reform has been notoriously hard to attain, but has been coming along slowly but surely in the six-plus years since Tom Menino brought in Roderick Fraser from the Navy to be BFD commissioner.

Part of the reason for hiring Abraira in 2011, rather than promoting someone internal, was pretty clearly to have a chief who is on the commissioner’s side of the line rather than the firefighters’. This was much resented by those on the firefighters’ side of that line, and since pretty much everybody in the department—up to and including the deputy chiefs—are part of the same union, that pretty much has meant everybody vs. Fraser and Abraira.

That long-dysfunctional brass vs. staff relationship at the BFD has been made worse, in my opinion, by Menino’s unnecessarily antagonistic and (I have argued) duplicitous dealings with the firefighters union.

City councilors have been a different story. Terrified of the perceived political strength (and media savvy) of the union, the usually Menino-acquiescent council has found ways to step in for the firefighters, at least to some degree, as it did in essentially reworking the last contract, and by refusing to let Menino extend the service of Abraira’s predecessor, Ronald Keating.

A couple of weeks ago, the deputy chiefs sent a letter to Menino asking for Abraira’s head, because they think the guy’s a jerk. Certainly, as I hear it, Abraira has undermined his own cause by apparently making no effort at all to be known and respected by the rank-and-file—as suggested in this recent Kevin Cullen column. Abraira’s silly threat to sue the deputies probably sealed his fate.

But it certainly seems that this is happening now at least in part because of politics. Abraira has been a symbol of a union loss in the staff vs. brass conflict, and you can see the calculation that says now is the time to rectify it. The lame-duck mayor probably wouldn’t want to waste very much of his remaining time and energy defending Abraira. Mayoral candidates are hoping for firefighter backing, or at least hoping to avoid their enmity. And the public and the media—which have never really much understood or cared about the need for BFD reform—are feeling particularly besotten with first responders since the Marathon bombing.

The calculations have proved correct. Menino and Fraser stood by their guy, but it was hard to hear any other supportive public voices. Mayoral candidate Mike Ross decided it was worth convening a city council hearing to let the union air their grievances—a hearing that Rob Consalvo, his campaign responded to me, “plans to attend because the public hearing will be a venue for a thoughtful and transparent discussion to get all the facts.” Several other mayoral campaigns, as I said, didn’t want to say anything.

And so today we learn that the firefighters have won, and Abraira is out. I would argue that they have learned from this that they are in a position of power, particularly over the batch of candidates from whom their next boss will be chosen. Which is why it seems unlikely that even the current slow pace of progress is unlikely to continue.