A culture clash within the Boston Fire Department is at the root of the recent no confidence vote in Boston Fire Chief Steve Abraira by 13 out of 14 deputy chiefs. But this isn’t a flap — as in the past — about whether shamrock details are appropriate decorations on fire trucks in a racially diverse city. In a recent letter to Mayor Menino, the deputies are charging that Abraira’s ineffective leadership and reluctance to assume the responsibilities of command at complex emergency scenes could cost “the life of a citizen of Boston or a member of the Boston Fire Department.’’
These are extremely serious charges and deserve close attention in upcoming City Council hearings and any independent review of the city’s public safety response to the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing. The deputies have leveled an especially harsh charge at Abraira of failing to show any leadership and relegating himself to spectator status after the blasts that killed three and wounded scores of spectators.
Abraira’s arrival here in 2011 was a shock to the insular culture of the Boston Fire Department. The former chief of both the Dallas and Palm Bay, Fla., fire departments was immediately targeted as an outsider. And he stood apart as the only nonunion member of the uniformed ranks in a department hobbled by labor-management tensions. Some of the criticism must be viewed through the lens of a group of cozy deputy chiefs who resented an outsider, especially one lacking in experience fighting fires in a dense city like Boston characterized by wood-frame construction and narrow streets.
The major policy issue in this dispute centers on who should take command of an incident, especially a multi-alarm fire. Traditionally, the senior-ranking officer at the scene has adopted that role in Boston. Abraira subscribes to national standards that recommend that higher-ups refrain from assuming command if an incident commander has the matter in hand. That’s why Abraira said he refrained from taking command from on-site deputies at the Marathon bombing scene. Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser, who is not part of the uniform corps, backs Abraira’s action. In fact, said Fraser, the deputy chiefs agreed at an earlier meeting that they didn’t want the chief to usurp their command authority absent any sound reason. And now, said Fraser, they are attacking their chief for showing confidence in their command capabilities.
“They can’t have it both ways,’’ said Fraser.
Some fire chiefs involved in the Metrofire mutual aid system also have jumped to Abraira’s defense, calling the deputies’ letter to Menino “the myopic ranting of those who reject reasonable reform and accountability.’’ The deputies insist otherwise. They aren’t put off by Abraira’s reluctance to take responsibility for specific tactics in the heat of battle. Instead, they point to his refusal to take overall responsibility at the scene or provide necessary support, such as serving as liaison with commanding officers in the police department. At the Marathon bombing, they charge, the chief was wandering when he should have been coordinating with other agencies to determine the structural integrity of buildings and monitoring air quality.
The deputies further charge that Abraira insists on adopting national standards or practices — such as the use of protective fire hoods and insistence on sending a minimum of two firefighters to ventilate a roof — even if confronted with evidence that such practices might not fit Boston’s needs or could even be dangerous in certain situations. It’s part of a pattern, they say, of a chief who is focused more on protecting himself from criticism than protecting the public.
The Boston Fire Department has a proud tradition of saving lives and property. It has a less proud tradition of marginalizing outsiders. Still, the deputy chiefs’ letter raises too many public safety issues to simply file it in the frivolous grievance bin. One way or another, there are problems in the fire department that require the attention of the City Council and other independent arbiters.