Fire Department’s new leader looks for balanced changes

On the day he was appointed Boston’s next fire commissioner, Joseph E. Finn sat down with the Globe to reflect on his journey to the top post and his plans for the department. The Globe’s questions and his responses have been edited and condensed.

What was your initial reaction when Mayor Martin J. Walsh called you and offered you the job?

My first reaction was, I can’t believe I’m here. It’s kind of like you want to pinch yourself. . . . You think back on your career and you look at where you are. It’s kind of surreal.

Why did you want the job?


A: I’ve got 30 years. I’ve been intimately involved in this department for so long. I think I’ve got a unique perspective. I’ve seen where that acrimony and adversarial relationship can erode the morale. My reputation kind of speaks for itself as far as how I deal with people, and that was evident in this round of negotiations with the union. We got some substantive management changes in that contract, things that would never have been achievable under the past administration.

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It seems that you and Walsh are pushing a new era of collaboration and mutual respect. Can you elaborate?

A: The last seven years were very detrimental to this department and needlessly. I’m not going to say we didn’t have our problems. My tenure down in personnel speaks for itself. I had no problem suspending people and holding [them accountable]. I also had no problem praising people for doing a great job. Striking that balance is important in any public safety agency.

What was the most detrimental part of those seven years?

A: I guess it was how every firefighter is painted with this broad brush. They were painted like they are all thieves and liars. And that’s not the case. We are reflective of society. Society has its 1 to 5 percent that is cast in a negative light. I think that is what happened here. I think it was exploited to push bargaining agendas, to push, if you will, political agendas.


Do you think it is your job now to repair the image of the Fire Department?

A: Certainly, a piece of it. It’s not my number one issue. The public respects the Fire Department. Certainly, we want to repair the image. We certainly want to be seen in a much better light than we have been in the past. And again people will be held accountable.

How do you address critics who say you are an insider, hired to lead a department resistant to change?

A: I’d ask them to look at my record as deputy chief of personnel . . . how I dealt with discipline. . . . I think I suspended almost 40 or 50 people one day on sick leave. People who dealt with me would say that I was firm but fair. You come in and do your job, and you will have no problem with Joe Finn.

If you are on both sides of the contract negotiating table, as you have been through the years, how can you also be the voice for change in the department?


A: Change is a difficult thing. Every management book that I’ve read said that change needs to come from within, if it is going to be a successful change. You can’t impose change just for the sake of change. To my critics, I say . . . if I let the critics dictate how I move forward here, then I’d be useless. I have to move forward and keep going and show by example where I am and how I got there.

Many minorities are not aware that military veterans have preference in hiring to the force. Do you think the Fire Department should seek other pathways that would help minorities get hired?

A: We’ve never actively recruited and formed partnerships and outreach in the minority veterans community. . . . We need a permanent diversity officer in this office that reports to myself. It would be a year-round position out in the community, naturally touching all the minority veterans and also working in the high schools to educate students on how to become a Boston firefighter.

Meghan E. Irons