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Walsh puts Fire Department back in familiar hands

Mayor names longtime official as new commissioner

Boston’s new fire commissioner, Joseph Finn, shook hands with Mayor Martin Walsh during the announcement on Monday.

Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Boston’s new fire commissioner, Joseph Finn, shook hands with Mayor Martin Walsh during the announcement on Monday.

The new leader of Boston’s storied but embattled Fire Department pledged Monday to restructure the management of the agency, improve the department’s dwindling diversity, and boost morale among the ranks of firefighters.

Joseph E. Finn, a three-decade department veteran, vowed to build on the strongest ideas from two earlier critical reports that urged major improvements in operations, management, and morale.

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The 53-year-old, who will hold the titles of fire commissioner and chief, gained public prominence amid tragedy in March, as he led the response to a Back Bay inferno that killed two firefighters.

In appointing Finn Monday after a national search, Mayor Martin J. Walsh cited Finn’s quick thinking and bravery during the Back Bay fire, which killed Lieutenant Edward Walsh and Firefighter Michael Kennedy after they became trapped in a burning basement.

Walsh said that as the incident commander, Finn inspired him and gained the trust of the men and women under his leadership. He is a favorite of union members, who had chafed under the leadership of outsiders brought into the department under Walsh’s predecessor as mayor, Thomas M. Menino.

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“He has dedicated his life to making the Boston Fire Department the best in the world,” Walsh said. “I have no doubt he’s committed to making whatever reforms are needed to take this department to the next level.”

Finn said that by next week, he will begin assembling a team that will include two nonunion civilian commissioners to oversee finance, as well as legal and labor relations.

He said he also intends to appoint two deputy chiefs who will no longer keep their union membership. Currently, all members of the department’s command staff, except the fire chief and commissioner, belong to the same union as rank and file firefighters.

“That is how I envision structuring the department,’’ Finn said Monday, barely an hour into his new role. “We certainly need a strong civilian management side of the house, because we are firefighters. We are not budget administrators.”

Finn also promised to hire a full-time diversity officer to recruit more black, Hispanic, and Asian military veterans for the department. He said he plans to show up at fire scenes and would make it a point to visit every firehouse in a show of support for the rank and file.

Walsh tapped Finn after a four-month national search to replace Roderick J. Fraser Jr., who ended a stormy seven-year tenure in January. Walsh hired FACETS management consultants for $23,500 to find Fraser’s replacement, and the search netted 29 candidates.

Finn, widely expected within the department to get the job, was one of three finalists, along with the public safety director in Pittsburgh and a former Buffalo fire commissioner.

Union leadership had been pressing for a commissioner from within the ranks who understands the complexities of fire operations in an old, densely packed city.

“Morale went up today knowing that Commissioner Finn was appointed and knowing that he is the right man who can lead this department,’’ said Richard Paris, president of firefighters union Local 718. “Our guys want a true leader. They want a leader who cares about the Fire Department. They want a leader who is not going to degrade them.”

Deputy Chief Gerard T. Fontana said he was thankful that Walsh picked Finn.

“There’s a lot riding on it,’’ he said. “Chief Finn understands it. I think he’s going to have the backing and the cooperation of his command staff.”

Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, said that while he has no doubts about Finn’s broad experience and respect throughout the force, he is concerned about whether Finn will find the right people to help manage the department.

“The question is, is he going to be successful in getting someone who will be part of the management and not part of the union?’’ Tyler said.

Tyler pointed to a 1993 contract with firefighters that called for two deputy chiefs to become nonunion managers, but said the plan faltered when the deputies could not break away from the union ranks.

The department’s management came under scrutiny during the early days of the Walsh administration, when John Hasson became acting commissioner. He was accused by outside critics of stripping responsibilities from deputy commissioners soon after taking over.

Finn was one of 13 deputies who signed a no-confidence letter that led to the abrupt resignation of an outsider hired as fire chief, Steve E. Abraira, in a power struggle last year. At a City Council hearing, Finn and other deputies said Abraira did not heed the “Boston way.”

As he prepared to leave the interim post, Hasson described leading the department as “a privilege and honor.”

“We had some crazy times and some tumultuous situations and some sadness,” Hasson said. “Working as a team, we got through it.”

Walsh announced the new commissioner Monday at fire headquarters, which sits at the edge of Roxbury. Finn, dressed in navy suit and gold tie, received cheers and an ovation.

In their remarks, Walsh and Finn signaled a new era of collaboration, a far different approach, they said, from the rancor that clouded relations between the fire union and the Menino administration.

Finn — who has represented management as the chief of personnel and the union during contract talks representing the deputy chiefs — thanked the union and the mayor for setting the right tone for the department’s future. It was that leadership, Finn said, that enabled the city and the fire union to reach a deal giving firefighters an 18.8 percent pay raise over six years and instituting some management reforms.

Walsh said that in Finn’s previous role as chief of personnel, in charge of recruiting, he helped steer the Fire Department toward a new period of professionalism. As deputy chief, Finn improved emergency medical services and disaster preparedness, the mayor said.

Finn, who served in the Marines, grew up in Dorchester and is a married father of four. One son, Sean, is serving in Afghanistan, and his other son, Brandon, is also a Marine veteran and a firefighter. Finn, who lives in Quincy, said he plans to move back to his hometown soon, as required under the city’s residency rule.

He said he was floored when Walsh called Thursday with the offer to lead the city’s third-largest agency, with more than 1,400 uniformed members.

The mayor’s office would not disclose Finn’s new salary. His current base salary is $150,240, officials said. Last year, he made more than $202,000, including his annual salary and $38,000 in overtime, according to city payroll records.

Signaling how he plans to lead, Finn recalled the Back Bay fire and praised the command staff whose leadership made the decision-making “a lot easier and lot more palatable.’’

“It wasn’t a one-man show,’’ Finn said. “And I was blessed that day to have [those] members in particular along with a number of other people to be there to guide me.”

Related coverage:

Kevin Cullen: Joe Finn clear choice for fire commissioner

Longtime Boston deputy among 3 finalists for fire commissioner

29 apply to be Boston fire commissioner

Acting Boston fire commissioner’s actions questioned

Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Meghan Irons can be reached at Meghan.Irons@globe.com.
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