A powerful cadre of deputy fire chiefs in Boston cited changes in “running’’ cards for Logan Airport as one in a list of reasons for running Steve Abraira — the city’s hapless fire chief — out of town last week. Boston Fire Commissioner Rod Fraser attributes the trouble to the deputies’ contempt of any boss who doesn’t rise through their ranks. But the incident does shine an important light on airport safety.
Running cards contain the predetermined assignments of fire companies based on proximity, street patterns, road obstructions, and other factors that might affect the quickest response to an emergency. Regional running cards are used to establish the order of response when one jurisdiction calls on outside departments for help. Massport, the agency that runs Logan, has historically designated the Boston Fire Department as the only outside department to respond to structural fires of up to five alarms at the airport. Under the new running card, Boston’s fire response would end after two alarms.
Unlike previous Boston fire chiefs, Abraira didn’t resist Massport Fire Chief Robert Donahue’s efforts to expand the mutual aid network to Winthrop, Revere, Chelsea, Medford, Lynn, Saugus, and several other fire departments in the event of a multialarm fire at the airport. The Boston deputies are angry that Abraira never consulted them. They insist that it makes no sense to have outside departments driving past staffed Boston firehouses while responding to the airport. Boston Deputy Fire Chief Joseph Finn, one of 13 deputies who expressed a recent vote of no confidence in Abraira, cited his own firehouse on the downtown waterfront as a prime example. Under the new plan, said Finn, his sophisticated technical rescue unit comprising engine, tower, and rescue companies would be split up or would sit idle while outlying departments responded to the airport from as far south as Quincy and as far north as Wakefield.
“I can the see the airport from the window of my firehouse,” said Finn.
Massport’s Donahue said he has long worried about the “unidirectional flow of equipment’’ from Boston fire companies, especially equipment arriving from the west via tunnels or bridges. The new running card creates a “faster and more robust response,’’ he said. And besides, he said, “a ladder truck is a ladder truck.’’
Turf, politics, professional jealousies, old scores, and lots of other issues are at play here. But all that should matter to the public is who gets to the airport fastest with the best trained firefighters and the best equipment. Boston would appear to have that edge.
While all of the metro region firefighters are certified and well-trained, Boston’s firefighters are more accustomed to complex situations. Boston’s engine and ladder companies arrive with four firefighters on board, not the usual complement of three from surrounding communities. And while it’s true that a downtown Boston engine company could encounter tunnel traffic, so could an outside department trying to reach the airport along Route 1A or Route 93 from the north.
Massport maintains its own 100-member fire department to deal primarily with medical, aircraft, and runway emergencies. But the force has little experience with structural fires. Donahue could recall only about a half dozen one-alarm fires and a single two-alarm blaze over the last 30 years. Yet stakes are always high at the airport, and there is no room for confusion. Massport policy, it turns out, acknowledges as much. It requires that the command of “fire ground operations’’ be transferred from Massport commanders to Boston commanders in the event of a building fire at the airport.
If Massport puts that much faith in the Boston Fire Department, then why limit its involvement to two alarms or interfere with the ability of Boston commanders to fight the fire with familiar troops instead of forcing them to manage unknown personnel from the far-flung departments on the new running card? Perhaps outlying fire departments should be brought in earlier to supplement Boston. But not at the expense of leaving the city’s most experienced firefighters sitting on their hands in the event of a major emergency at the airport.
These issues deserve a full airing at Friday’s scheduled City Council hearing on the events leading up to Abraira’s resignation, including the deputies’ charges that Abraira shirked his duties during the Marathon bombings. The deputies say they will be there to make their case. But neither Boston fire commissioner Fraser nor Massport’s Donahue has committed to attend. Their absences would be keenly felt by a public eager to hear all sides of this story.