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Joan Vennochi

Putting the heat on the Fire Department

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / January 17, 2008

FINALLY, deep into his fourth term, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino is taking on the Boston Firefighters Union.

"It would have been nice to see that fire in the belly much earlier," said Samuel R. Tyler, who heads the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-funded watchdog group that has been pressing the mayor to implement Boston Fire Department reforms for at least 14 years.

Last October, autopsy results showed one firefighter was legally drunk and another had cocaine in his system when they died fighting a West Roxbury restaurant fire in August. That put drug and alcohol testing at the forefront of contract negotiations with Local 718, which has long resisted it.

But drug and alcohol testing is not enough. According to the research bureau's latest report, released yesterday, it is just one facet of needed reform in the scandal-plagued department.

"A final contract without drug testing or with drug testing but no significant reform language should not be approved," concludes the report. Other issues that should be part of any contract: a health insurance agreement already accepted by other unions, which requires employees to increase their share of cost by 5 percent; temporary promotion and shift-swapping policies; and better sick leave control.

With bad news flooding out of the Fire Department, the mayor is now saying he won't give in to union bullying. But, how far will he go in demanding change?

"I agree with Sam," he said of Tyler's report. "We need drug testing and other reforms." But Menino stopped short of saying he would hold out for a contract that included all the reforms the research bureau considers necesssary. "It's very difficult," he said.

Besides the revelations about the two firefighters who died in West Roxbury, the Globe recently reported that between 2001 and 2007, 102 firefighters were granted tax-free and substantially higher accidental disability pensions after reporting on-the-job injuries while they were substituting for their superiors at higher pay. State officials are investigating whether firefighters cheated on a civil service exam. One new firefighter used political connections to get hired ahead of others with higher exam scores.

"I am astonished by the union leaders' unwillingness to eliminate substance abuse and unethical personnel practices," declared Menino, in his State of the City address. "These union leaders do not seem to realize what everyone in this city knows - that it is not right to ask for pay raises as a reward for putting a stop to these abuses of the public trust."

If union leaders still don't get it, it's because they have had their way with Boston mayors for such a long time. A study in 1985, and another in 2000, called for sweeping institutional change in the Boston Fire Department. Little occurred. Menino first vowed to impose reforms on the department shortly after he was elected mayor in 1993. But the firefighters union asked for more pay in exchange for each change, and the city admits it backed down.

The city and firefighters have been stalled over their latest contract negotiations for over 20 months. In August, city officials petitioned the state to take jurisdiction of the case and begin mediation. That still hasn't happened; it should, and soon. Meanwhile, the firefighters union should drop the nonsense and support needed Fire Department changes. That will help its image more than the New York public relations firm that Local 718 hired for spin control.

As the research bureau report points out, drug testing is more common in public safety departments than when it was first proposed in Boston. The Menino administration put it on the table in 1999 and 2004, but no agreement was reached. (The Boston Police Patrolmen's Association first negotiated drug testing in 1998; it became effective in 1999.)

Menino should have more leverage now with the firefighters union, given the recent headlines.

The union's resistance to change is well-documented. Menino's resistance to bucking it is also well-documented. His new feistiness is welcome, but long overdue. Hopefully, it's more than rhetoric from a mayor who would prefer to go unchallenged as he positions himself for a fifth term.

Firefighters deserve respect, but Boston also deserves a Fire Department it can trust.

When it comes to delivering on that trust, fire in the mayoral belly comes better late than never. But there's no getting around the fact Menino's burn was a slow one.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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