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Lawrence Harmon

A new fire chief for Boston

Keep Keating on the job until a replacement is hired

By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / August 6, 2011

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THE BOSTON Fire Department is scrambling to find a new fire chief, one capable of withstanding the heat from a tough union. Mayor Menino and civilian fire commissioner Roderick Fraser believe they already have that person in place - fire chief Ronald Keating, a 41-year veteran of the department. But Keating turns 65 in October, the mandatory age of retirement for fire department personnel in Massachusetts.

In an April letter, Menino asked the city council to raise Keating’s retirement age to 70. “It is vital that the department be allowed to retain an experienced manager and operational specialist in order to preserve its morale and effectiveness,’’ wrote the mayor, who further described the department as at a “critical crossroads.’’

The council, however, has buried Menino’s home-rule petition. Its members don’t relish a fight with the firefighters’ union, which lobbied aggressively against raising Keating’s retirement age. Keating is a thorn in the side of the union - a rare example of a Boston firefighter who climbed the uniformed ranks only to break with the department’s insular culture and embrace his role as a no-nonsense, non-union manager.

Keating, who has served just two years in the chief’s post, played an important role during last year’s brutal negotiations to bring mandatory drug and alcohol testing to the department. And his knowledge of the department’s inner workings would be especially useful during upcoming negotiations to put the brakes on relentless shift swapping, a situation so out of control that some firefighters are collecting salary and pension credit for work not performed.

“He would be great at the (collective bargaining) table,’’ said Menino. But that kind of endorsement is only likely to stiffen union opposition.

It would be overkill to extend Keating’s tenure for another five years. The department needs new leaders. But given Keating’s capabilities, it makes plenty of sense to keep him in place for another six months or a year. That would allow Fraser to mount a thorough search for a replacement, preferably a candidate from outside the department.

This week, Fraser sent a letter to dozens of the department’s deputy chiefs and district chiefs, inviting them to apply. But all of them are long-time members of Boston Firefighters Local 718, the same union as the firefighters under their command. It’s a miserable management model that discourages effective discipline. And it explains a lot about why the Boston Fire Department has been plagued for years with disproportionately high sick time use and questionable disability claims.

Samuel Tyler, who heads the nonprofit Boston Municipal Research Bureau, has warned for years about the drawbacks of a union that blurs the line between firefighters and their managers. “It says a lot about the bench,’’ said Tyler.

Fraser said he doesn’t rule out promoting from within the department. But he sounds more interested in the work of the firm hired to conduct a national search for Keating’s replacement.

“It’s tough for someone here for 30 years to be a change agent,’’ Fraser said.

When Keating retires, the public would be served best by someone who was never exposed to the Fire Department’s wink-wink culture. Surely there are internal candidates with excellent operational skills and expertise in the latest training and safety methods. But there are few, if any, who are likely to view the deep-rooted racial segregation in Boston firehouses as a stain on the city, not just some natural outgrowth of tradition and seniority rules. Or someone willing to risk long-term friendships in the department to challenge the wastefulness of a contract that allows injured firefighters a 45-day grace period before returning to work on light duty, even if there is no medical justification for the delay.

The market for urban fire chiefs is competitive. Major cities, including Los Angeles and Dallas, are looking to hire. But Mark Light, the executive director of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, said there is no shortage of top-notch candidates around the country, including those who would “relish a challenge’’ like Boston.

A reasonable solution would keep Keating on the job until such a candidate could be found. But flashes of reason remain all too rare in the Boston Fire Department.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.