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Watchdog urges outsider for Fire Department commissioner

The new commissioner of the Boston Fire Department should be a civilian from outside the force and a “change driver” who can bring greater accountability and management expertise to the force, says a city watchdog group that is urging fiscal reforms in the department.

The Boston Municipal Research Bureau said the city should keep the two-person leadership team established under Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

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The appeal comes as a firm hired by the city proceeds with the search for a permanent replacement for Roderick J. Fraser Jr., who was commissioner for seven stormy years before resigning in January.

A public forum on the search process is set for tonight in Mattapan.

The Research Bureau maintains that the department, while a national leader in
fire suppression, remains one of the costliest departments in
the country and needs a management-conscious commissioner, who would then pick a fire chief, responsible for day-to-day operations.

The commissioner and chief would work together to look for cost savings, improve efficiency, and bring the department in line with national standards, the watchdog group said.

“We have always thought that if reform were to be achieved it is going to require two people — a commissioner and a chief of department — both committed to progressive leadership,’’ said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the research bureau, which is funded by businesses and nonprofits.

The Boston Municipal Research Bureau also wants the city to utilize a two-person leadership team.

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John Hasson, the longest-serving Fire Department deputy chief, is now acting commissioner and acting fire chief. The department had a history before Fraser of one person serving in both roles, but Tyler said the old management setup produced few department reforms or savings.

Gregory Sullivan, research director at the conservative Pioneer Institute think tank, urged Mayor Martin J. Walsh Monday to ensure that the commissioner and chief remain “reform-minded people.”

“Mayor Walsh promised on the campaign [trail] to take a good hard look at the Fire Department,’’ said Sullivan, a former state inspector general in Massachusetts. “Any reform will have to be implemented by an independent person. I hope that Walsh finds that person.”

But fire union president Richard Paris argued that the next commissioner must be someone who has risen through the ranks and has the ability to balance being financially savvy while emphasizing safety.

“Our profession is unique in that civilian lives and firefighters’ lives are on the line every time we go out the door,’’ said Paris, referring to the Back Bay blaze that left two firefighters dead in March. “The benefit of having a commissioner who has ascended the ranks of the Fire Department . . . is a tremendous asset to the department and the citizens of the city it serves. There is no substitute for experience.”

Fraser’s pick of fire chief Steve Abraira led to clashes with the fire union, who said neither man had the firefighting expertise to lead the department. The union argued that Abraira, who led the Dallas department and was an assistant chief in Miami, had no training in fighting fires in a city like Boston, with densely populated neighborhoods of row houses and three-deckers.

After less than two years, Abraira quit abruptly when his deputies criticized his handling of the Boston Marathon bombings. The chief said he faced resistance from the outset of his tenure because he pressed national safety standards.

Walsh hired FACETS management consulting in February to launch a national search for a commissioner. Walsh, who was wrapping up a long weekend break Monday, previously said he would institute “cultural changes” in the department and promised greater accountability and transparency. Walsh said he would keep the management structure established under Fraser, which includes civilian deputy commissioners, but also said he is considering whether one person should serve as fire chief and fire commissioner.

The mayor, who reached a contract deal with the fire union last month, said recently through his press secretary that he has not settled on whether the commissioner should come from outside or from within the department.

“We have not specified to FACETS whether the role should be filled by a civilian or by a firefighter,’’ said Kate Norton, spokeswoman for Walsh. “Our only expectation is that the most qualified candidate, regardless of civilian status, will fill this role.”

Norton said that the city would not identify potential candidates because of privacy concerns and that no short list of finalists exists.

As the search continues, a review panel from FACETS will hold a public forum at 7 p.m. tonight at Mildred Avenue School in Mattapan.

City officials described the meeting as a chance for the consultants to gauge public expectations for the commissioner and to help the consultants better understand the commissioner’s role in the city.

The city has also established a website on which candidates can submit applications by May 16. The site says the city expects a new commissioner to be appointed by this summer.

The commissioner, earning $125,000 to $175,000 a year, will lead the third-largest agency in the city, with an operating budget of nearly $190 million and more than 1,400 members in the uniformed fire force.

Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com.
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