Shortly after becoming Boston’s new fire chief in 2011, Steve E. Abraira watched a firefighter climb to the top of a burning building and knock a hole in the roof. It was a routine firefighting tactic, but national fire safety standards dictate that at least two firefighters mount a roof at a time, a buddy system designed to save firefighters’ lives. This firefighter was alone.
So Abraira decided to do something that is rarely done in a department that dates to the 1600s.
He made a major policy change, and updated the rules to require that two firefighters always go up a roof together.
In the weeks that followed, he made more rule changes, part of a mandate to modernize Boston’s sometimes sporadic firefighting procedures and bring them in line with accepted industry practices. He said he wanted uniformity in a department where individual commanders were previously granted wide discretion in how to attack fires.
Instead of bringing the order Abraira hoped for, the changes set off an open revolt among most of his 14 deputy chiefs. Abraira resigned in June amid bitter public complaints by his deputies and charges that he failed to lead in the hours after the Boston Marathon bombing. But, according to interviews with Abraira and fire officials inside and outside the department, including the current acting chief, his departure came after months of mounting internal acrimony. Some say it revolved around one fact: Abraira was an outsider, the first ever hired from outside the firefighters union.
“He had a steep hill to climb from day one,’’ said John Nash, chairman of Massachusetts MetroFire, a firefighting group that promotes coordination among 34 area fire departments including Boston. “He was a chief selected from outside the department in a city that is very parochial in their operations.”
At a recent City Council hearing about Abraira’s departure, the deputies said they criticized Abraira for upsetting time-proven traditions with his rule changes and, noting “hundreds of years of experience,” argued that they knew better than he how to tackle the unique challenges of Boston.
The deputies said Abraira — a career firefighter with more than 37 years experience, including as chief of Dallas’s 2,000-member force — had worked only in sprawling cities that did not prepare him for firefighting in a densely populated city of narrow and crammed streets.
In particular, the deputies objected to the new roof rule, saying senior officers should assign their forces according to conditions at the scene, not because a policy dictated it. And they said they objected for the same reason they objected to Abraira’s other changes: It wasn’t, they said, “the Boston way.”
“His philosophy and our philosophy are polar opposites,’’ said John Hasson, a former deputy chief who is now acting chief, in a recent interview. “He didn’t understand how we operated here.”
Abraira said he thought he had come to help a department that badly needed updating and instead found himself ostracized and dismayed.
“It was hell for a year and a half,’’ said Abraira, now retired in Palm Bay, Fla., another city where he was once fire chief. “I thought I was in the Twilight Zone.”
As the city prepares to pick a new mayor for the first time in 20 years, officials are hunting for a new fire chief and doing some soul-searching about what went wrong. Fire Commissioner Roderick J. Fraser Jr. said he plans to look internally this time and hopes to name a successor by next month. Four deputy chiefs including Hasson have applied for the job.
Until a new chief is named, Hasson is in charge. On a recent morning, he sat in his office as a large air conditioner blew warm air. He’s a tall man, with short graying hair, and a thick South Boston accent.
He followed a path through the department similar to many others — joining days out of the Marine Corps, following his father, a few cousins, and uncles. “It’s a family thing,’’ he said.
Hasson and several other deputies said their gripe with Abraira was never personal. But the chief did everything contrary to what they believed. They said Abraira didn’t mingle with the rank and file and didn’t come to retirement parties or major events such as the annual remembrance of the 1972 Hotel Vendome blaze, where nine Boston firefighters perished.
Abraira and some high-ranking department officials who supported him dispute those accounts, saying he visited fire stations and sometimes went for runs with firefighters. Abraira said he was not invited to retirement parties, which were held at the union hall by Boston Firefighters Local 718, of which he was not a member. Abraira said he felt that showing up uninvited might have been perceived as an affront.
Some inside the department said the deputies were “gunning for” Abraira soon after he started and that at least one talked behind his back and made fun of him for displaying his numerous diplomas and certifications on his office wall.
“It was like they thought he was a threat,’’ said one high-ranking official who supported Abraira.
For their part, the deputies said they tried to give Abraira the benefit of the doubt. When Abraira was announced as chief, the union president and his wife took him out for a welcome dinner at Abe & Louie’s, a Boston seafood and steakhouse.
On another occasion shortly after Abraira started, Hasson said, he talked to Abraira about issues he felt needed to be addressed in the department, such as training, fiscal management, and aging firehouses. But he said Abraira wanted to talk about issues concerning firefighter appearance — better dress shirts with name bars and an extra patch on one sleeve.
“That was his priority,’’ said Hasson. “I heard him say that, and I said to him, ‘First of all, that doesn’t make sense.’ This is our uniform that we’ve had forever. We’re not going to change it.”
Abraira acknowledged that he initially focused on issues including uniforms but that he quickly changed tacks after seeing the firefighter alone on the roof.
He said he began reviewing the standard operating procedures, which had not been updated in 20 years, and found that existing policies often didn’t conform with national standards. He argued that firefighters would be safer under the new policies and, in the event of an accident, the department would be shielded from criticism and legal liability.
The deputies fought back, saying Abraira’s roof rule unnecessarily constrained commanding officers’ ability to manage a fire. They reasoned that Boston’s force is massive, and that swarms of firefighters are on the scene so quickly that firefighters are never on a roof or in a burning building alone for more than a few minutes. The roof rule change was best suited for smaller, suburban forces with limited manpower, the deputies said.
The deputies also criticized Abraira’s changes to the command structure at fires and other emergencies. Under previous policies, the chief, upon arriving at the scene, was required to announce his presence and take command. But under Abraira’s new rule, the chief could elect to leave command in the hands of the next ranking officer, a practice recommended by the National Fire Protection Association and that is used by many departments across the country. The deputies were livid.
“If his job is not to show leadership, then why did he become fire chief?’’ Hasson said.
The deputies said Abraira used national standards as an excuse to remove himself from any command responsibility and accountability, and to criticize the deputies.
But Fraser, the commissioner, said the very policies the deputies were upset about were recommended in a detailed report that the union had requested in 2010.
In that report, FACETS Consulting LLP reviewed the department’s health and safety procedures and listed among its recommendations the two-firefighters-on-a-roof rule.
“The union asked for these changes,’’ said Fraser, stressing that they were recommendations, not rules. “That’s what Chief Abraira was trying to do.”
After the Marathon bombings, all but one of the 14 deputy chiefs signed a letter to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, saying they had no confidence in the chief. They were particularly upset that Abraira did not play a high profile leadership role at the Marathon bombing scene.
Abraira responded with his own letter, saying that by the time he got to the bombing sites his deputies were in control, victims had been taken to hospitals, and all the blazes were out. It had become a police crime scene, and the Fire Department took on a supporting role.
City Council inquiry
Abraira said he feels the deputies saw the crisis as a chance to do what they had wanted to do all along — drive him out.
“They saw that as an opportunity,’’ he said. “They wanted to make me look bad, one way or the other.’’
He said that some months earlier he had asked the deputies if they wanted him to assume command of their incidents and all but one said no.
In late June, at the City Council inquiry into Abraira’s departure, more than a dozen deputies detailed their complaints about Abraira.
Deputy Chief Joseph Fleming picked apart the role of the national standards, stressing that they are suggestions, not rules.
At end of the hearing, City Councilor Michael Ross asked Hasson whether the department plans to keep any of the policies Abraira imposed as chief, including the two-firefighter-on-a-roof policy.
Hasson responded: “We are going to stick with a policy that has been successful for us for the past 300 years,’’ he said. “They may have worked in a different environment, but they don’t work here.”