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Feeling the heat

Minority firefighters send Mayor Menino a long-overdue message: It’s time to spur reform by hiring a civilian commissioner

THE BOSTON SOCIETY of Vulcans, the association of minority firefighters, deserves kudos for demanding that Mayor Tom Menino respond seriously to the chronic problems of racism, sexism, and homophobia within the Boston Fire Department.

In a press conference and at a hearing last Thursday, July 26, dozens of Vulcan members took Menino to task for failing to hire a permanent, civilian fire commissioner to combat harassment — despite a 19-month-old, city-commissioned report urging him to do so (see "Council Wrangling," News and Features, July 27). They were flanked by Boston city councilors Chuck Turner of Roxbury and Charles Yancey of North Dorchester, as well as activists from 43 civil-rights organizations.

It’s about time somebody pressured the mayor to quit dawdling on this issue. It has been more than a year and a half since the O’Toole Commission released its scathing report on the 1600-member fire department. The comprehensive effort exposed rampant racism, sexism, and homophobia among the rank and file. It blasted the good-old-boy department culture and its resistance to change. The panel — chaired by former state public-safety secretary Kathleen O’Toole — recommended 66 reforms, many of which aimed to ease racial and gender hostilities. The panel also made one thing clear: change would require the appointment of a civilian commissioner.

As the report bluntly states, "The existing management structure is insufficient to properly administer the department in modern times." Or as O’Toole herself said at the time her report was issued: "Civilian management is essential in this department. Firefighters are trained to fight fires, not to deal with complex management systems."

There’s no doubt the Boston Fire Department remains rife with tensions today. Minority and gay firefighters have relayed one shocking tale after another of mistreatment at the hands of their brethren — everything from bigoted remarks scrawled on firehouse walls to nasty attempts to destroy their safety equipment. In a July 19 article in the Boston Herald, one black lesbian firefighter recalled the day she’d found herself trapped while beating back a blaze. Her pleas for help went largely ignored.

Continuing problems related to racism in the department prompted Turner to call a well-attended July 23 hearing. The move came after John P. Joyce, captain at the Dudley station, refused to put up signs welcoming the public into his Roxbury firehouse, even though similar signs are displayed at eight other firehouses, including those in South Boston, Charlestown, and Brighton. Vulcan members say Joyce had complained that the signs would attract prostitutes and drug addicts from the neighborhood.

This type of intolerance has got to stop. Yet despite the obvious need for reform, Menino has used the city’s contract dispute with Boston Firefighters Union Local 718 as an excuse to drag his feet. The mayor has said he plans to wait to appoint a permanent leader for the department until the city has a new contract with the union, which has gone without for 25 months. Messy negotiations, he asserts, would distract any appointee from making reforms. But hiring a new commissioner is totally separate from the issue of collective bargaining. He could make this move unilaterally, whenever he wanted.

The mayor has already done something similar by appointing a civilian human-resources director for the fire department’s personnel office — another non-union leadership post that was suggested by the O’Toole report. On July 23, Robert Moran, a former human-resources official at Hilton Corporation, started his job with much fanfare. The Menino administration even heralded Moran as the link to reform, the man who will usher in many of the changes recommended by the O’Toole Commission.

Moran’s appointment is a much-needed positive step. But a second-level official does not command the authority to implement sweeping change. He does not set the tone for the department. That can only come from its top boss: a civilian commissioner.

To date, Menino has not committed to an outside appointee. He says he’s done a search, but there is no evidence of the sort of systematic, professionally run recruiting effort that’s needed. Speculation abounds that he intends to name the current fire chief, Paul Christian — speculation that Menino has yet to deny. The city’s chief operating officer, Dennis DiMarzio, who serves as the acting fire commissioner, has reinforced that belief as well. At a June 13 city-council budget hearing, DiMarzio suggested that department reform could be carried out by having the chief double as the commissioner.

That would be a serious mistake. However competent Christian may be, critics are right to question his ability to serve as change agent for a department that has avoided these problems for years. (Some white firefighters have complaints of their own, arguing that promotions should be based on exam results alone. The finding of an outside commissioner, whatever that might be, would certainly be more palatable and convincing than a judgment rendered by an insider.) The revamp will require not just leadership, but independence. How can we expect Christian, who has spent his entire career in the department, to resist the department’s entrenched culture? How can we expect him to go against his own colleagues and friends? As Turner puts it, "It’s unrealistic to think the chief would not be affected by pressure from the rank-and-file firefighters who resist change."

An outside commissioner would allow Menino to send a clear message. It would announce to minority and gay firefighters that a new, more tolerant era awaits them. It would announce a break from the department’s poor policies and practices of the past.

Menino has brought in an outsider to trumpet change before. In 1995, the mayor helped set up the professional search committee that lured school superintendent Thomas Payzant back to his native Massachusetts from Washington, where he was a leading school-reform advocate for the US Department of Education.

Now, Menino has another opportunity to do something dramatic: to launch a nationwide search for a civilian fire commissioner.

It’s time Menino led the reform charge. It’s time he did what’s right.

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Issue Date: August 2-9, 2001

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