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Boston city councilors question fire officials on letter

A Boston City Council budget hearing Thursday was derailed by discussion of the brewing schism between Fire Chief Steve E. Abraira and 13 of his deputy chiefs, prompting council members to schedule a hearing to hash out the “serious allegations” brought by the deputies.

The deputies, who wrote a letter to the mayor alleging that Abraira is an unfit and incompetent leader who mismanaged response to the Marathon bombings, say the chief implemented unpopular administrative changes in order to allow himself to shirk responsibilities at fire scenes.

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The departmental spat became public Tuesday when the letter was released to the media, and it heated up Thursday when the fire commissioner called the deputies “dinosaurs” who are averse to change.

“This was handled, in my view, extremely unprofessionally,” Commissioner Roderick Fraser said during the City Council committee hearing. “This whole thing, in my opinion, is a revolt against change by a bunch of dinosaurs, and they don’t run the department; I do.”

Council members said that while the fire chief is a mayoral appointment, they feel responsible for further examining the allegations.

“We don’t run the Fire Department, but we do fund it so, if a question of competency of leadership comes up it’s a serious question,” said Council President Stephen J. Murphy in a phone interview with the Globe. “We take our job of funding and ensuring public safety very seriously.”

Council members expect the public safety committee to call a hearing to review the charges laid out in the letter.

Councilor Mike Ross, the committee chairman, could not be reached for comment Thursday night but plans to release a letter Friday morning announcing the hearing, an aide said.

The deputy chiefs wrote in the letter that Abraira failed to assume command responsibility after the bombings, instead allowing the command staff to maintain control.

That decision to remain on the sidelines during a crisis, the deputies wrote, is “indefensible.”

The criticisms took center stage Thursday when Abraira and Fraser appeared in front of the council’s Ways and Means Committee for the hearing.

After the departmental presentation was given, the floor was opened for councilors’ questions, according to a video of the hearing available online. Murphy cautioned those present that this was not the appropriate venue to litigate the deputy chiefs’ complaints about Abraira.

But moments later, Councilor John R. Connolly brought up the letter, asking Fraser and Abraira to comment on the allegations.

As Abraira began to answer, Murphy interjected, again stating that this was not the time for the discussion.

But Connolly went on to question Abraira and Fraser about the letter. They both defended Abraira’s decision to remain a spectator and let deputy chiefs call the shots during the response to the Marathon bombing.

“By the time I got there we had things well in hand,” Abraira said. “There was really no reason to take command.”

Fraser went on to criticize the deputy chiefs, who he said should have brought any concerns they had with the chief to him rather than releasing their letter.

Councilors Frank Baker and Matt O’Malley both took issue with Fraser’s characterization of the deputies as “dinosaurs,” and asked him to apologize, which he did.

“It was a little insulting.” Baker said. “If they’re dinosaurs but the operation went perfect, then those dinosaurs were obviously doing something correct.”

Reached by phone Thursday evening, Fraser said he regretted getting “heated” during the council session and noted that he respects and trusts each of the deputy chiefs.

But he reiterated that he believes the letter was an inappropriate way to handle their concerns with the chain of command on a fire scene.

“This has been a very stressful time for everybody in the department and, sometimes, people get heated and they say stupid things,” Fraser said. “But I have the utmost confidence in the deputies; if there is a fire in my house, I know that they’re going to save my life.”

Several of the deputy chiefs declined to comment on the record when reached on the phone by the Globe on Thursday night.

Others could not be reached for comment.

The letter, which labels itself a vote of “no confidence” in the chief, lampoons him as an inadequate leader who is putting the public safety at risk by his inability to oversee active incidents.

“In apparent recognition of his lack of expertise, the chief shields himself from immediate accountability while setting the stage for undermining the confidence and authority of his command staff,” the letter reads.

“We feel that if something is not done to address this situation that eventually there will be a price to pay,” it later ­declares.

Earlier this week, Mayor Thomas M. Menino defended the embattled fire chief and vowed that Abraira’s job was safe for as long as he remains mayor.

Questioning the timing of the letter, Menino said on Wednesday that he believes Abraira handled the Marathon bombings well.

Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report. Wesley Lowery can be reached at Wesley.Lowery@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @WesleyLowery.
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