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Questions raised about search for Boston fire commissioner

One woman pressed consultants searching for a Boston fire commissioner about where they were recruiting. If it is a national quest, she asked, where are they advertising?

Another questioner wanted to know if longtime deputy chiefs would automatically be on the short list of candidates.

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And a third person wondered why the sole opportunity for public input on such a critical position in the Fire Department had not been better publicized.

Representatives from FACETS management consulting of Phoenix, charged with recruiting candidates, spent two days in Boston this week fielding questions and gathering public input about the commissioner’s job. But at a meeting Tuesday evening in Mattapan, they were also trying to allay concerns over whether the search process would truly be national and fair.

“A lot of people might see this as a facade . . . [that] someone has already been selected and we are going through the process,’’ Fire Captain Darrell Higginbottom said at the meeting. “That is going rampant through the Fire Department right now.”

The search process and the selection of FACETS have raised eyebrows, particularly because the city already has on retainer another company — Waters Consulting Group — that specializes in recruiting public safety executives. Waters Consulting is currently searching for a police chief in Somerville.

Boston paid Waters Consulting $24,000 in 2011 to find a fire chief, the number two position in the department. It is paying FACETS $23,500 to identify a short list of candidates to replace Roderick J. Fraser, who was commissioner for seven years.

While FACETS has done extensive consulting for public safety agencies, this is its first comprehensive search for a fire commissioner, said Kate Norton, spokeswoman for Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

In 2010, the company conducted a sweeping review of the health and safety of the Boston Fire Department. Recommendations from that review have largely been ignored.

Kevin Roche, who is leading the search for FACETS, told residents Tuesday the firm was hired in February after city officials asked it to submit a proposal. John Hasson, the longest-serving fire deputy, is currently acting commissioner and acting fire chief but is expected to soon retire.

The fire commissioner, expected to earn $125,000 to $175,000 annually, works directly for the mayor and is the political bridge to the fire chief, the department’s day-to-day administrator.

Roche said FACETS will accept applications until May 16. Candidates will be interviewed in the first week of June and a list of three names will be submitted to Walsh by mid-June, the consultants said.

According to Roche, the firm has placed ads in The Boston Globe and on several websites, including the International Association of Fire Chiefs, the International Association of Fire Fighters, and the International Association of Black Professional Fire Fighters. FACETS said it has also placed ads on a site targeting the nation’s female firefighters and on govjobs.com.

As of Tuesday, only one candidate, from Maryland, had applied. Roche said he expects to get 100 applications.

During Tuesday’s meeting the FACETS team — Charles N. Hood, San Antonio’s fire chief; William “Shorty” Bryson, chief of Miami-Dade Fire and Rescue; and Cathleen Gleason, former budget and research director in Phoenix — heard from residents in what was believed to be the first-ever public hearing during a fire commissioner search.

Many at the meeting urged the panel to recruit culturally sensitive candidates with strong management and fire service skills — people able to connect communities to their firehouses and committed to hiring more neighborhood residents onto the force.

Most people at the meeting said they want a fire commissioner from outside the department. Others expressed concern about the search process, voicing suspicions that a decision has already been made about the commissioner’s post.

“Has the mayor said he will pick from your recommendation, or is there still a possibility that the mayor will reject your recommendation?’’ Senen More, a Boston firefighter, asked FACETS representatives at the Mattapan meeting.

“It’s the mayor’s appointment,’’ responded Roche, who is an assistant to the fire chief in Phoenix. “But it is my sense that the mayor will select from that group. Otherwise, he would be wasting everybody’s time.”

Hood said that after hearing from several groups in the city, the consultants are well aware of troubles plaguing the force.

“We know diversity is an issue. We know infrastructure is an issue,’’ Hood said. “We know morale [is an issue].”

Firefighter Octavius Salih Rowe, a vice president of the Boston Society of Vulcans, pressed the group to find candidates who can address what he called “entrenched behavior and actions in the department.” The Vulcans advocate for the recruitment, retention, and promotion of black firefighters.

Bryson said the consultants are looking for someone who possesses the leadership skills required to conceive ideas and execute them.

“That is a tough thing to find,’’ Bryson said.

And the consultants are looking for a candidate who can bring change to a department as old and steeped in tradition as Boston’s.

“Tradition is a great thing,” he said, “but it can also stymie a lot of great things that you are talking about.”

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