Boston Fire Commissioner Roderick J. Fraser Jr., who for seven years battled union leaders and led reforms of a fractious fire force, will resign in January, leaving open the department’s top two posts as the new mayor takes over.
Fraser, 49, submitted his resignation to Mayor Thomas M. Menino Monday, saying he will depart Jan. 6, the day Mayor-elect Martin J. Walsh, whose campaign was heavily supported by labor unions, assumes office.
“As I look back on my years here, I’m leaving a much better department than when I found it,” said Fraser. “And I’m proud of that. I felt it was time for me to move on and do something different.”
Fraser said he was not forced out and is leaving on his own terms, adding that he is “looking for new challenges in the private sector.”
Fraser is one of a long stream of Menino operatives who have been leaving City Hall as uncertainty looms amid the first mayoral transition in 20 years.
When Walsh assumes office Jan. 6, he will not only have to replace the fire commissioner but find a permanent successor to Police Commissioner Edward F. Davis, who resigned in November to accept a fellowship at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Superintendent William Evans, who ran the Boston Marathon and responded to the bombings, is serving as acting police commissioner.
The Fire Department has not had a permanent chief since June, when Steve Abraira resigned amid controversy. Deputy Fire Chief John Hasson is serving as interim chief.
Fraser’s departure also comes amid protracted contract negotiations with the firefighters’ union.
Menino hired Fraser, a 20-year decorated Navy veteran from East Millinocket, Maine, in September 2006 as the city’s 37th fire commissioner and gave him wide latitude to reform a department seen as deeply resistant to change.
But almost immediately Fraser met intense union resistance, including from his deputy chiefs, and for much of Fraser’s tenure the relationship with the union remained tense, often stormy.
Richard F. Paris, president of Boston Firefighters Local 718, said he wished Fraser well in his future endeavors.
“I know we’ve had a roller coaster ride with him,” Paris said. “We have not always got along. We’ve had our difficulties. . . . In this business, the union president and the commissioner disagree at times, but it’s always business.”
Asked to cite some of Fraser’s accomplishments in seven years, Paris grew quiet.
“I really don’t know,’’ he finally responded.
Fraser’s supporters say he steered the department through moments of crisis amid tight budget constraints and economic hardships without any layoffs on the force. He achieved some reforms, including mandatory drug testing after firefighters Paul J. Cahill and Warren J. Payne were killed in a blaze in West Roxbury in 2007. Fraser revamped the maintenance division after a 2009 episode in which a firetruck hurtled down a hill and killed Fire Lieutenant Kevin M. Kelley, 52, of Quincy, a 30-year veteran of the force.
Supporters say he also cracked down on problems such as pension abuses and rampant shift swapping, a practice that allowed some firefighters to take months off at a time with no record of it.
He installed a new firefighter training facility on Moon Island, established a voluntary wellness program for firefighters to curb injuries, and hired a fresh team of civilian deputy commissioners to help manage and professionalize the department.
“The creation of the civilian deputy commissioners is essential and should continue,’’ said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the nonprofit Boston Municipal Research Bureau. “The commissioner operates in an environment where he didn’t have a strong support group to help him, and the three commissioners’’ was that group.
Stephen J. Murphy, the outgoing president of the Boston City Council who headed the Public Safety Committee for 14 years, said he is not surprised Fraser is leaving as Menino departs. “He was in a tough position over there,’’ Murphy said. “He had his highs and his lows. . . . He tried to lead the organization as best as he could. But there were other people who wanted to lead it in another way, so it was constant upheaval.”
Fraser, who was criticized by some on the force as an outsider, took more heat in 2011 when he hired Abraira, a veteran firefighter who had been fire chief in Florida and Texas, as chief. Abraira resigned after less than two years on the job after 13 deputy chiefs wrote a letter to the mayor expressing no confidence in Abraira over his handling of the Boston Marathon tragedy.
Gregory W. Sullivan, a former Massachusetts inspector general and research director at the conservative leaning Pioneer Institute, said Fraser fought a lot of battles, showing “real leadership” in reforming the department.
“He stood up for the taxpayers when he insisted on drug testing of first responders,’’ Sullivan said. “He is a tough, really smart, effective leader, and I’m sad to see him go.”
Darrell Higginbottom, vice president of the Boston Society of Vulcans of Massachusetts Inc., which supports the hiring, retention and promotion of minorities in fire service, also praised Fraser, saying he was moving the department closer to establishing national standards and best practices. Fraser was also working to ensure that the fire force maintains diversity reflective of the city, said Higginbottom.
“He had a concern for a diverse Fire Department, and so we hope the new commissioner shares that view,’’ said Higginbottom.