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Globe Editorial

A firestorm of dysfunction

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January 27, 2008

WHEN THE need for reform arises in the 1,500-member Fire Department, Boston's bravest are also Boston's most obstinate. The result is an organization that is drifting further by the day out of the mainstream.

Public safety workers occupy the top of the municipal labor hierarchy in Boston. City Hall tries to honor an unwritten parity code when negotiating with police and fire unions. But the mulishness of Firefighters Local 718 and the failure of the Menino administration to win meaningful concessions at the bargaining table have created a gulf.

Boston police, for example, submit to random alcohol and drug testing. Firefighters do not. Efforts to control runaway healthcare costs yielded a recent agreement that requires police to absorb 15 percent of premiums. That's still below what private-sector workers pay, but firefighters remain at 10 percent. Police managers assign injured officers quickly to light duty posts. Yet injured firefighters can invoke a six-week stay-at-home provision. And taxpayers should look into the deep end of the Fire Department's motor pool. About 20 full-fledged firefighters are performing routine maintenance on department vehicles and buildings. The police manage nicely with lower-paid civilian maintenance workers.

A recent report by the nonprofit Boston Municipal Research Bureau comparing police and fire operations cited a "rational staffing model in the stations and units" of the Boston police. The same report cited "a history of embedded culture resistant to change" in the Fire Department. It can be a toxic culture, too. The Globe reported recently on a slew of Boston firefighters claiming tax-free disability pensions rather than regular retirement benefits. One odd practice enabled more than 100 firefighters since 2001 to retire with higher disability pensions after claiming on-the-job injuries while filling in for superiors at higher pay grades. Injury leaves alone jumped like wind-whipped flames from 2003 to 2006, costing taxpayers more than $40 million.

Serious irregularities could be at play. The best way to find out would be for Mayor Menino to hire private investigators who specialize in uncovering workplace fraud. So far, the mayor says only that it is "something I'd consider." He should consider it - and then do it. In municipal circles, the meek only inherit bloated payrolls.

A culture of leadership
There are deep cultural and structural differences separating the city's police and fire departments. The Police Department is layered with higher ranking officers who make a serious study of police policies, procedures, and data, and understand the need for accountability. Though unionized, superior officers in the Police Department bargain separately from the patrolmen's union, leaving a bright line between labor and management. And flexibility is valued. Police Commissioner Edward Davis, for example, is free to promote a promising sergeant to his command staff without getting caught up in a jumble of yellow crime tape.

No such culture of executive leadership exists in the city's Fire Department. Regardless of rank, nearly all uniformed firefighters belong to Local 718, obliterating the lines between labor and management. One result is that civilian Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser has few places to turn, other than his talented director of administration and finance, for reliable advice during the heat of contract negotiations. And he must follow a strict contractual protocol that forces him to choose his command staff from a group of deputies whose greatest loyalty lies with the union. Fraser says he hopes shortly to hire civilian deputy commissioners to oversee personnel and planning. But it is no wonder that he often feels like "an army of one."

Even at those odds, Fraser stands to win on the issue of mandatory alcohol and drug testing. The issue gained altitude after two firefighters died in an August blaze in West Roxbury. Reports indicated that one firefighter was legally drunk and another had traces of cocaine in his system. Yet the union is demanding excessive pay raises to accept such testing. It's a losing strategy that raises fears among the public of impaired rescuers. And it ought to be a source of angst among sensible firefighters whose lives may depend on the mental fitness of the colleague at their side.

Minimally, the Menino administration should introduce psychological testing for new firefighters beginning with this spring's class. Fraser, the fire commissioner, says some members of his department had been weeded out of the Police Department hiring process for psychological reasons. He doesn't know how many. And he acknowledges that psychological requirements for police and firefighters might differ. But it is all the more reason to have mandatory drug and alcohol testing of current firefighters.

Drug testing could also uncover firefighters who rely on drugs to counter exhaustion. Many firefighters fulfill their entire work-week obligations by working two nonconsecutive 24-hour shifts. That leaves lots of opportunities for outside work, especially for firefighters who double as tradesmen. But it also requires relentless shift swapping, which hardly encourages cohesive teamwork. Fire union officials are quick to argue that their members don't share in the police largess of private details or pay incentives linked to criminal justice degrees. But few, if any, police officers have the freedom of schedule that firefighters do. And firefighters, who enjoy higher base pay and pensions than police, fail to mention the income of their second jobs when making the comparison.

Given the risks inherent in their jobs, it takes a lot to turn the public against its firefighters. But Boston's bravest are making quite a run at it.


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