The demographics and culture of the Boston Fire Department remain an embarrassment, and the city’s political leadership ought to start treating them that way. Too many politicos still walk on eggshells when it comes to the firefighters, though, and that kind of deference is standing in the way of a blunt assessment of the agency’s deficiencies and the serious change that it clearly needs.
The latest evidence is a report released Tuesday that concluded that the city’s 16 female firefighters (out of 1,500! In 2019!) encounter a sometimes-unwelcoming work environment.
Who would have thought.
According to the inquiry, led by attorney Kay Hodge, women face widespread “locker room talk” at 33 firehouses, among other problems. “It cannot be denied that the department remains male-dominated with persistent perceptions of favoritism, resistance to change, and a culture of ‘going along to get along’ for women,’’ said the report.
As critics immediately pointed out, all of this is old news. “This report did not reveal anything that we did not already know,” said US Representative Ayanna Pressley of Dorchester.
That’s true, and the fact that so little has changed despite the obvious nature of the problem makes it even more outrageous. (Oh, by the way, the department is also 72 percent white; no surprise, after a scathing analysis by the NAACP in 2017 on the lack of racial diversity among the city’s firefighters.)
The scrutiny of the fire department shouldn’t diminish the fact that firefighters put their lives on the line. What needs shaking up is the system that built this male-dominated culture.
The latest report offered 21 recommendations, including the creation of a cadet program. This would provide a way around civil service rules that give a strong preference to military veterans; as well-intentioned as this policy has been, it has become a barrier to diversity. A cadet program would be a step in the right direction — a small step.
But if Mayor Marty Walsh and the City Council want to be braver, they need to press for a civilian commissioner, demand an end to 24-hour shifts that encourage a frat-house atmosphere, make the residency requirements harder to game, and limit the veterans preference. (Some changes would require the Legislature’s help.)
Over the years, the department has resisted serious reform — an enclave of old-school ways in a changing city. One reason is that the firefighters’ union has been a formidable friend of the status quo: Walsh, who has been endorsed by the union, has shied away from forceful action.
Reform must begin with Walsh but also the City Council, which recently signed off on a firefighters’ union contract and has to be more vigorous about using opportunities like that to agitate for change. Both the mayor and councilors share a responsibility for a department that continues to make a mockery of the progressive values that most of the city’s political leadership claims to hold dear.