With Boston Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn announcing his retirement on Monday, City Councilors began pushing for a successor who will commit to making the city’s very white and very male fire department more diverse.
“I want someone who will prioritize that the Boston Fire Department looks like Boston,” Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards said.
Edwards said she wants “an excellent firefighter who is going to lead, and not just respond to, issues of diversity and inclusion.”
“It’s fair to say that the FD, before Joe, for a long time, has been reactionary,” said Edwards.
She said that true leadership would include aggressively advocating for a fire cadet program. Advocates have said such a program would help make the department’s ranks more diverse.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh signed a home rule petition to start a fire cadet program last year. Such a petition needs approval from the Legislature.
Councilor Liz Breadon said a more diverse department would better serve Boston, a community where non-Hispanic whites are a minority, according to the US Census. More than half of the city’s population is female.
“If we set it as a priority to improve diversity, we can make that happen,” said Breadon.
Boston fire spokesman Brian Alkins said that in the history of the department, which dates back to 1678, each fire commissioner has been a white man.
Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell, said she hopes Walsh would consider “the talented people of color and women in the department as candidates for our next [commissioner].”
“Naming a leader of the department who better reflects the diverse communities of Boston will be a significant step toward changing the perception of the department,” said Campbell.
In a statement, Councilor Julia Mejia had similar sentiments, saying, “I believe we have the opportunity to hire from within and I would love to see a person of color or a woman become the new Commissioner.”
Finn’s successor will inherit a department that has been criticized for its lack of diversity and a male-dominant culture. The new commissioner will also have to deal with a lawsuit from a powerful firefighters’ union that has alleged the city has repeatedly violated its collective bargaining agreement.
While 37 percent of the most recent firefighters class of 53 was comprised of people of color, up from 27 percent in 2018, the department is still predominantly white and male. Walsh’s office said Monday there are 1,437 city firefighters in the department. Of that number, only 17 are women and 409 are people of color, his office said.
Finn has defended his record as head of the department, saying in a recent Globe op-ed that he was “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.” According to Alkins, the fire department spokesman, civil service regulations like the preference for military veterans can limit a department’s ability to add more diversity to its ranks.
Finn has also pointed to his hiring of a diversity recruitment officer, the first in the department’s history, and his renewed efforts to recruit more female veterans.
Last fall, the city appointed its first-ever Black chief of operations for Boston fire, as Andre R. Stallworth was named the No. 2 commander in the department. The department also named its first female district chief, Deanna M. McDevitt.
Asked Monday if Stallworth would succeed Finn as commissioner, Alkins said he did not know. Walsh’s office did not answer that question on Monday.
In 2018, Walsh tapped William G. Gross to lead the city’s police force. Gross is Boston’s first Black police commissioner.
Finn, a 59-year-old Dorchester native who became fire commissioner in 2014, announced his retirement on Monday after 36 years with the department. In a tweet, Finn said he was going to spend more time with his family but added that he would continue “on a part-time basis in the fire service as I weigh several options.”
Finn said he was retiring March 12. Walsh, in a Monday statement, thanked Finn for his service and said he would be naming the next fire commissioner “in the coming days.”
Last year, female firefighters and local officials blasted a city-commissioned report that found a “male-dominated” culture resistant to change in the Boston Fire Department. Critics of the report said it recycled old recommendations and did not go far enough to address systemic issues.
The report was the product of an outside counsel’s review of the department’s handling of harassment and discrimination allegations brought by women on the force.
In January, a Boston firefighter was found guilty of assaulting a female colleague, in an incident that underscored the dwindling number of women in the city’s fire force and the hostility some say they have long endured, the Globe reported at the time.
Pam Kocher, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, an outside watchdog, said the ideal commissioner would have frontline firefighting experience and a willingness to be a reformer. She called the fire commissioner’s job “one of the toughest challenges” in the city.
“The department definitely needs to be professionalized and modernized,” she said.
Messages left with the president of Local 718, a Boston firefighters’ union, were not returned on Monday. The union, which is one of the city’s largest labor groups and was a big supporter of Walsh during his inaugural 2013 mayoral campaign, recently sued the Walsh administration, alleging repeated violations of the union’s collective bargaining agreement.
The suit cited three recent instances in which the department changed the status of firefighters from injured leave to either sick leave or light duty, which would force the firefighters to either work or use up their limited sick time.
The Globe recently reported union members have been quietly but increasingly venting frustration with the administration, particularly as the mayor and Finn have looked to implement changes to address several issues, including the paucity of female firefighters and complaints about the organization’s “locker room” culture.