Thirteen deputy chiefs from the Boston Fire Department slammed Fire Chief Steve E. Abraira in a recent letter to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, insisting that their boss’s response to the Marathon bombings was inadequate and part of a pattern of shirking responsibility during emergencies.
“You can unequivocally consider this letter a vote of no confidence in Chief Abraira,” the deputy chiefs wrote to Menino in the letter dated April 26.
The fire officials strongly criticized Abraira’s “inactions” after the bombings, writing that he failed to assume command responsibility at the scene on April 15 or show any leadership. They wrote that he later told department members that he felt the command staff had the scene under control as the Fire Department acted in a support role with law enforcement.
“His justification for failing to take action is indefensible,” the deputies wrote, adding that firefighters were still “heavily involved” after Abraira arrived at the scene on Boylston Street, due to the possibility of additional explosions, more suspicious packages, and structural concerns for buildings, among other issues.
Abraira fired back in a phone interview Tuesday, saying that the command staff had control of the scene when he arrived and that he acted appropriately.
“When I got there I was comfortable with what was going on,” he said. “. . . The nationally accepted practice is that you only take command [as chief] if there’s something going wrong or if you can strengthen the command position or if it’s overwhelming for the incident commander, and none of those things were in fact happening.”
But in their letter to Menino, the deputy chiefs wrote that Abraira has reversed decades of department protocol by changing department operating procedure and relegating himself to spectator status at fire scenes, rather than taking command as his predecessors did.
In so doing, the deputies wrote, Abraira “shields himself from immediate accountability while setting the stage for undermining the confidence and authority of his command staff. While acknowledging his ultimate accountability for department operations, he avoids on-the-scene responsibility.”
A spokeswoman for Menino would only say that the mayor has “full confidence in Commissioner [Roderick] Fraser to do what’s best for the department, including [in] his own personnel decisions.”
Fraser, the fire commissioner, said he has “the utmost confidence in my entire staff, my entire command staff, including Chief Abraira,” but declined to discuss the letter on the record. Abraira, whom Fraser appointed in November 2011 and made headlines as the city’s first Hispanic fire chief, disputed the deputy chiefs’ characterization of the new operating procedure.
“I think the big issue for them is, they think that because I’m not called the incident commander, I don’t have responsibility, and that’s not true,” said Abraira, who previously led the Dallas department and was an assistant chief with the Miami Fire Department. “I’ve reiterated that. . . . I’m still responsible for what goes on there.”
He said he polled 29 big city fire departments last year to see if their chiefs are required to take command of a scene, and only the New Haven department said it follows that policy.
The chief also denied an assertion in the deputy chiefs’ letter that he took a picture of himself at a six-alarm fire in East Boston on the roof of an adjacent building, to capture the blaze in the background, and that he was “worrying about his ‘scrapbook’ ” instead of fire safety. Abraira said he went to the roof to see what the roof of the other building looked like but called the notion that he took a photograph of himself “just crazy.”
“There was no picture taking,” he said. “ . . . I don’t know where they came up with that.”
He said the deputy chiefs are upset with him because he came from outside the department.
Councilor Michael P. Ross, chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said the deputy chiefs are raising “serious issues.” The mayoral candidate said he plans to consult Fire Department leadership and the deputy chiefs to “gain a better understanding of the concerns raised.”
Asked if he approves of Abraira’s job performance, Ross said, “It’s too soon to make that determination.”