The Boston Fire Department has long been a power unto itself. Despite several studies detailing the need to reform and modernize the department, the tradition-bound institution has stubbornly resisted big change. Some problems spring from the fact that the entire uniformed command staff, save for the chief of department, belongs to Boston Firefighters Local 718, the same union that represents the rank-and-file. Another problem: The union knows that if the firefighters hold out long enough in contract negotiations, the outstanding issues will be decided by binding arbitration, a process that often leans toward labor.
Last week, I asked most of the mayoral hopefuls three questions about the department. 1) Would they appoint an independent commission, or hire a consulting firm, to do a comprehensive review of the department, from staffing levels to stations to salaries and benefits? 2) Do they think having the uniformed command staff and rank-and-file firefighters in the same union makes sense? 3) Would they try to reform the current binding arbitration process?
Plus, a bonus query: Would they adopt the Boston Municipal Research Bureau’s proposal to randomly choose one department per year for a thorough review by a firm experienced in performance evaluation? Good news there: Almost every candidate either liked that keep-them-on-their-toes idea or said they wanted stem-to-stern performance reviews of all city departments.
So who seems most serious about fire department reform? My top tier: Bill Walczak, Dan Conley, and Charlotte Golar Richie. Walczak, the Codman Square civic leader, will release a policy statement on the Fire Department today, a statement that nods to the department’s proud history but is also candid about its resistance to reform and both detailed and determined about bringing the department into compliance with national standards.
Last week, Walczak gave me matter-of-fact answers to my queries — and then called to underscore his resolve. His responses: Yes to an independent review panel; no, it doesn’t make sense to have almost all the command staff in 718; yes on re-examining the binding arbitration process, which he said “seems to lean toward labor rather than management.”
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