Walsh’s risky play with a Fire Department insider

Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, left, appointed Chief Joseph E. Finn as the next Commissioner of the Boston Fire Department.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, left, appointed Joseph E. Finn as the next commissioner and chief of the Boston Fire Department.

Mayor Walsh is taking a calculated risk by appointing longtime deputy chief Joseph E. Finn, 53, as the next commissioner and chief of the Boston Fire Department. No one should have qualms about Finn’s technical expertise or his character. But his willingness to bring badly needed management reforms to the 1,400-member department remains an open question.

Walsh was faced with a basic decision: Hire a civilian commissioner from outside the insular department or elevate a deputy chief from within. His decision to hire an insider, even one as talented as Finn, sent a questionable message to a department known for high rates of on-duty injuries, abuse of sick leave, dubious disability claims, and the blurring of lines between labor and management. These practices, Finn will need to recognize, have bred considerable skepticism among Boston taxpayers.

Fire suppression is in excellent hands under Finn. But that would have been the case had he been named solely to the position of fire chief and not invested with the executive duties of a civilian commissioner. Ideally, the duties of the two posts should be separate, as they were during the seven-year tenure of former commissioner Rod Fraser. The pace of reform, including the introduction of random drug testing for firefighters, accelerated under Fraser and his civilian management team of deputy commissioners. With the arrival of the new mayoral administration, Fraser and all of the civilian deputy commissioners stepped down, leaving a huge gap in the administration of the $185 million department.


Still, there are reasons to hope that Finn, who served on the contract negotiation team for the firefighters’ union, could turn out to be a top-notch commissioner. He has indicated his intention to hire at least two civilian deputy commissioners in the areas of budgeting and labor relations. He also indicated that he will round out his management team with two uniformed deputies who will have to relinquish their membership in the firefighters’ union. That’s a major step toward the effective management of a department stymied by the unusual presence of rank-and-file firefighters and deputy chiefs in the same labor union.

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On Tuesday, Walsh said he is confident in Finn’s ability to bring “21st-century reforms” to the department, where tradition and inefficiency are intertwined. There are ways for the public to assess Finn’s progress. Will his department check up on firefighters on injury leave to ensure they are not shirking work? Will he use independent medical personnel to evaluate the injury and disability claims of firefighters or fall back on practitioners who are known to have cozy relationships with the union?

Finn, who has risen through the firefighter ranks since joining the department in 1984, clearly has the tools for this job. What he must demonstrate is his willingness to address dysfunctional practices and, when the need inevitably arises, to call his longtime colleagues to task.