The modern-day urban fire department in the 21st century is a multipurpose emergency response agency, and the Boston Fire Department is improving and modernizing in a way that will make it a model for the nation.
Since I was appointed commissioner and chief of the fire department in 2014, firefighter training has increased from 8,000 hours to nearly 30,000 hours annually. We instituted a Back-to-Basics training program in September 2014 for all companies on a rotating basis to ensure that our citizens can rely on a well-trained corps of emergency responders. This was done because 8,000 hours was inadequate for the ever-changing demands placed on the fire service, from dealing with changes in building construction and materials, to threats of terrorism, to how to handle new technical rescues and hazardous materials.
Mindful that operational training is only part of the job, we implemented specific workshops to focus on a variety of issues, including leadership, establishing a respectful workplace, anti-harassment and antidiscrimination standards, non-retaliation policies, conflict resolution, implicit bias, and social media.
In 2016, we hired the department’s first full-time Diversity Recruitment Officer, whose primary charge is recruitment and outreach, with a focus on increasing the diversity of the applicant pool for minorities and women, as well as to build a pipeline of younger candidates. I am committed to using any and all tools at my disposal that are within the bounds of civil service law to recruit and hire additional minorities and women. The most recent firefighter recruit class, sworn in on Jan. 2, 2019, is the most diverse class since a consent decree was lifted in 2003 after a federal court found that the department had reached racial parity. The 2019 class was 37 percent minority and the 2018 class was 27 percent minority. This is due in large part to the department’s efforts to utilize the existing permissible legal tools to increase the number of minorities and women hired.
The dearth of female candidates is a challenge. To place this in perspective: The 2016 firefighter entry-level exam yielded 90 women Boston applicants; 41 passed. For the 2018 exam, there were 59 female Boston applicants; 39 of them passed. Many are not military veterans and, under the state’s civil service law, veteran status dictates hiring order. In 2018, we applied twice to the state for an exemption to bypass the requirements that have hindered the city hiring more women firefighters, an exemption that must be approved by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. But the MCAD denied both BFD requests, most recently in October 2018.
One of the biggest issues facing our firefighters today is cancer among the fire service. The department has embarked upon a multitude of health, safety, and wellness initiatives, including the installation of industrial washing machines to clean bunker gear; instituting physical fitness and mental health resilience programs specifically developed for Boston firefighters; and offering body screenings for early detection of cancers and cardiac conditions.
The Boston Fire Department has accomplished much in the past five years. Operations have been improved. Infrastructure, equipment, and technology have been upgraded. Training has been augmented and strengthened. Recruitment and outreach efforts to achieve greater diversity are taking shape. As the Boston Fire Department commissioner, I am committed to building a strong foundation for today’s firefighters to continue these advancements and improvements for the department and its members.
Joseph Finn is commissioner and chief of the Boston Fire Department.