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The Boston Globe

Opinion

SCOT LEHIGH

Will Walsh reform the Fire Department?

Interim Fire Chief John Hasson

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Interim Fire Chief John Hasson

Surprise, surprise, surprise.

Having spent tens of thousands of dollars helping to elect Marty Walsh, Boston Firefighters Local 718 is now in effect declaring: We’re back in charge of the department.

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As the Globe’s Meghan Irons detailed in Tuesday’s paper, Acting Fire Commissioner John Hasson, Walsh’s hand-picked interim appointee, has elevated the department’s old guard and undercut the civilian deputy commissioners who had been brought on to help move the hidebound department into the modern era.

Who would have imagined?

I mean, who except for those who read the Globe’s 1999 series detailing the long list of problematic practices at the BFD.

Or those who digested the report that Kathleen O’Toole and her commission did on the need for Fire Department reform back in 2000. Or those who have read the Boston Municipal Research Bureau’s various special reports on the department. Or anyone who watched the way the firefighters resisted former Commissioner Rod Fraser’s modernization efforts. Or followed the way the insular department undercut efforts by former chief Steve Abraira, an outsider with strong professional credentials, to implement national firefighting standards.

Or those aware that Local 718 contributed $15,000 directly to Walsh’s campaign and another $60,000 to American Working Families, a super PAC that paid for an ad blitz on Walsh’s behalf, bringing the total of national, state, and local firefighters funds spent directly or indirectly to elect Walsh to more than $100,000.

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In other words, any reasonably informed observer of Boston politics could have anticipated this development.

Make no mistake, this is a big test for Boston’s new mayor. The firefighters obviously think that, having dipped deep into their war chest to elect him, the mayor is now securely in their pocket.

So on Tuesday I was interested in seeing how Walsh would react to what Hasson has done.

“I was a little surprised,” he said in a phone interview, adding that he had called his interim commissioner to ask why he had to read about those moves in the Globe. The changes Hasson has made have “not gotten the approval of the mayor’s office,” said Walsh, adding that he wanted to keep the civilian deputy commissioners there “once I select a new permanent commissioner.” The mayor also said that he will appoint a commission to review the department, reaffirming a commitment his campaign made last fall.

“We are working toward that,” he said. “We are taking the issues one at a time. The Fire Department is coming up.”

Walsh didn’t commit to going outside the union when he hires a permanent commissioner or to keeping the posts of commissioner and chief separate. But he did point to his generally well-received appointments at the Police Department as an example of what he’d do.

His basic message, in other words, was this: Give me time.

And certainly a new mayor deserves a certain amount of time. But it’s also crucial that Walsh recognizes what is happening here. While he has taken his time getting his City Hall team up and going, the Fire Department’s union old guard has had a different approach.

“They don’t agree with any of the changes that have been made,” says one well-informed source. “They want to turn back the pages of time.”

Look at Hasson himself. He was one of the unionized deputy chiefs who resisted Abraira’s effort to implement national standards. After Abraira resigned in frustration last year, the City Council held a hearing, at which then Councilor Michael Ross asked Hasson whether the department would keep any of Abraira’s policies, including one stipulating that a firefighter shouldn’t be alone on the roof of a burning building.

“We are going to stick with a policy that has been successful for us for the past 300 years,” Hasson responded, saying that Abraira’s ideas “may have worked in a different environment, but they don’t work here.”

One of the department’s biggest problems is that almost everyone there is in Local 718. It was a battle for former Mayor Tom Menino and Fraser just to add three deputy commissioners to help manage the department. And once that happened, members of 718 bristled at having to report to those non-union civilian managers.

One of those deputy commissioners left last fall. Now, Hasson, who for decades was a member of 718, has been busy “reorganizing” the department in a way that has led the others to depart.

Don’t wait too long, Mr. Mayor. Time’s not on your side here.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.

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