After a nationwide search drew more than 50 applicants, Boston announced yesterday that the city had hired its first Hispanic fire chief, tapping a career firefighter from Miami with experience as a big-city chief to lead one of the nation’s oldest fire departments.
Steve E. Abraira - a mild-mannered 56-year-old of Cuban, Spanish, and Italian heritage - will take over the department on Dec. 5. Abraira will represent two firsts for a department that dates to 1678: He will be the first leader hired from outside its own union ranks. And Abraira will be the first member of an ethnic minority to serve as chief for a force that has struggled with diversity.
Fire Commissioner Roderick J. Fraser Jr. said Abraira was selected because of his robust 37 years of experience.
“He’s an independent thinker . . . and you can see from his resume that he did not just stay in his comfort zone,’’ Fraser said yesterday. “He’s not afraid to tackle tough issues. And he’s not afraid to stand up for the things he believes in.’’
After 26 years rising through the Fire Department ranks in Miami, Abraira left his home in 2000 and became chief of the Dallas Fire Department, which has more than 2,000 members. But Abraira resigned abruptly after five years following a cost-cutting dispute with a new city manager. Since 2007, Abraira has been chief in Palm Bay, Fla., leading a department with roughly 140 firefighters near Cape Canaveral.
In Boston, Abraira will replace Ronald W. Keating, who retired in October after 41 years with the department because he reached the age of 65. Mayor Thomas M. Menino tried to raise the mandatory retirement age to 70 so Keating could stay, but the City Council rejected the move.
To find a new chief, the city paid a recruiting firm $24,000 to conduct a nationwide search. The city interviewed 13 applicants, Fraser said, including three Boston deputy fire chiefs and two district fire chiefs.
But the job went to Abraira. Fraser said they were still negotiating Abraira’s salary, but it will be a little less than that of Keating, whose base pay was $163,346.11 in 2010.
In Fraser’s office yesterday, Abraira spoke with a hint of a Southern accent about how being an outsider will help him look at the department with fresh eyes.
“I’m coming in with an open mind and a clean slate,’’ Abraira said. “I spend a lot of time listening and observing. I do a lot questioning, asking; ‘Why are we doing it this way? Have you ever thought of doing something like this? How about this?’ ’’
One immediate question will be his relationship with the firefighters union, which has clashed with Fraser, the first commissioner hired from outside the department. Abraira met for two hours yesterday with Richard Paris, president of Local 718.
“He has a pretty good resume,’’ said Paris, who invited Abraira to a union meeting today at Florian Hall. “If the union can work alongside him and bring this job into the future, we’ll be fine. I think he is on board with that.’’
Union leaders in Palm Bay and Dallas spoke highly of Abraira.
“He doesn’t forget where he came from as a firefighter,’’ said David Ginsburg, president of the Palm Bay firefighters union. “And he knows what he needs to do as far as being a fire chief.’’
Added D.D. Pierce, president of Local 58 in Dallas: “He’s not a political person; he’s a fireman’s fireman. He’ll get down and dirty. At a fire, you turn around and he’s got a [hose] line and he’s fighting a fire.’’
In Boston, Abraira may have a buffer from the politics because of Fraser, the civilian commissioner who most often answers to the mayor and City Council. The chief is the highest-ranking uniformed member of the department and serves as more of a field general who oversees logistics.
Born in Fort Riley, Kan., Abraira grew up in Miami, where his father was a firefighter. At age 19, Abraira joined the Miami Fire Department and served alongside his father. Abraira rose to assistant chief, but then took the chief’s job in Dallas.
In the Texas city, Abraira quickly established his presence. In his first seven months as chief, he visited scores of fire stations and responded to nearly 60 multiple-alarm fires, according to a 2001 story published by the Dallas Morning News.
Abraira focused on improving emergency medical service and upgrading firefighting technology, according to the newspaper. He also made significant changes: Abraira instituted new uniforms and pushed to add the word rescue to the department’s name, so it became Dallas Fire-Rescue.
The new chief was well regarded among firefighters. But Abraira struggled with big-city politics. After five years, Abraira resigned under pressure from the city manager, Mary K. Suhm, who did not return a call seeking comment yesterday. Abraira fought some of Suhm’s cost-cutting measures that he said would have endangered firefighters.
“He stood his ground protecting the jobs of his men and women,’’ said Pierce, the Dallas union leader. “It cost him his job.’’
Two years later, in 2007, Abraira won the chief’s job in Palm Bay, Fla. The department covers 100 square miles with five fire stations.
In Boston, Abraira will be back in a big city. The department has more than 1,600 personnel, 35 fire stations, and a budget of almost $182 million.
His status as the first chief who is a member of an ethnic minority will have an impact.
“I think it’s significant,’’ said Rayshawn Johnson, president of the Boston Society of Vulcans, an organization of black and Latino firefighters with about 220 members. “Any time it’s the first time, it’s always significant.’’Andrew Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.