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Mayor hires firm to search for new fire commissioner

Mayor Martin J. Walsh has hired a firm to launch a national search for a permanent commissioner of the Boston Fire Department, Walsh’s office confirmed Friday.

The mayor’s spokeswoman, Kate Norton, would not disclose details of the search, the firm, or what Walsh has charged it to do. She said the mayor intends to make an announcement next week.

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The last time the city launched a national search for a fire commissioner was seven years ago, when Mayor Thomas M. Menino selected Roderick J. Fraser Jr. to help bring the $187 million department into the modern era by trimming costs, improving efficiency, and adhering to national standards.

Boston’s Fire Department is among the nation’s oldest and offers a model in firefighting capabilities. The department prides itself on its firefighting proficiency and ability to respond to calls in under four minutes.

But observers said that with the number of major fires dramatically decreasing and the role of firefighting shifting to emergency response, the department needs a strong leader to guide it into a new era.

“I am pleased that the mayor is going to undertake a national search for commissioner,’’ said Samuel Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-funded fiscal watchdog group.

Tyler said he is urging Walsh to pick a strong civilian commissioner with significant management experience. He said that the commissioner should then select a respected uniformed officer to be fire chief and help steer the 1,600-member department.

The city is negotiating a contract with the firefighters union, which is seeking higher pay, during a time of tight budget constraints, to match a pay hike recently awarded to city police. Walsh has asked most departments to trim 1 percent from their budgets.

In his plans for the department, Walsh had said he is considering hiring one person to serve both as fire chief and commissioner.

But, Tyler said, consolidating those roles would be wrong for Boston.

In the early 2000s, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau and a commission headed by former Boston police commissioner Kathleen O’Toole recommended that both a civilian commissioner with significant management experience and a respected fire chief were needed to push changes in the department.

“There is a need for reform in the department,’’ Tyler said Friday. “There has been a sliding back of reforms and a culture that resists change.”

To make the department stronger, he said, will require two leaders.

When Fraser was hired as a nonunion commissioner, he was given the mission of taking on Boston Firefighters Local 718, trimming costs, and improving efficiency in what some call an entrenched culture.

His turbulent seven-year tenure was marked by controversy, although he has been hailed by outside critics for making some strides, such as instituting mandatory drug testing and revamping the department’s fleet maintenance division.

Those achievements came only after two tragedies. In 2007, two firefighters died battling a West Roxbury fire; one of them had cocaine in his system, the other was intoxicated on alcohol. Two years later, a lieutenant driving a firetruck on Mission Hill died when its brakes failed and it careered down a steep incline.

Fraser left the commissioner’s position Jan. 6, the day Walsh assumed office.

Walsh tapped Deputy Chief John Hasson to become acting fire commissioner. He had been serving as acting fire chief since the summer.

But Hasson was criticized when he began unraveling the management structure that Fraser had created. Hasson stripped duties assigned to Fraser’s civilian team and assigned them to uniformed command staff, whose members belong to the same union as rank-and-file firefighters.

Hasson defended his actions in an interview with the Globe, saying his recent changes were intended to create a management team that is more inclusive of both nonuniform fire personnel and deputy chiefs.

But Hasson’s actions alarmed city watchdogs, who expressed concerns that they were indicators that the Walsh administration was backing off from much needed changes.

In a previous interview, Walsh said he intends to push changes in the department and continue “cultural changes.” He promised greater accountability and transparency, and said he is seeking a commissioner with a proven track record in building relationships with the command staff and uniformed managers of the force.

Walsh had also promised to keep the current management structure that had civilian commissioners overseeing planning and organization and budget and finance.

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@ globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.
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