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Studies of Fire Dept. going unheeded

Recommendations in 3 audits languish

The City of Boston has not adopted dozens of recommendations to overhaul the Fire Department proposed since 1994, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in what independent auditors identified as wasteful spending and leaving unaddressed concerns about firefighter fitness and lack of diversity.

A Globe review of three audits - conducted by consultants and independent commissions in 1994, 1995, and 1999 - found that the city has not followed through on 50 of 82 recommendations.

Among the potential money-saving moves never adopted: scaling back the Marine Unit, which responded to 28 fires last year; eliminating the Maintenance Division, where firefighters are assigned to fix vehicles even though most repairs are contracted out; scrapping the Fire Alarm Division, which maintains a network of street signal boxes dating to the 1800s; and shutting down the Long Island Fire Brigade, where 13 full-time firefighters watch over a cluster of buildings and responded last year to five fires. Staffing those divisions costs taxpayers roughly $6.6 million a year, about 5 percent of the department's personnel budget of $131.9 million.

The city also has failed to address key recommendations about firefighters' well-being, including mandating regular physical exams to ensure firefighters are up to fighting fires and creating a committee to improve race relations in the department.

As for a recommendation that the city diversify firefighter ranks, there are 468 nonwhite firefighters today in a department of 1,501. That's four fewer than there were in 1999, when the total force was 1,592.

The previous recommendations for change were all submitted to Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who has ultimate responsibility for the department, appoints its top leader, and oversees labor negotiations. Reasons for the lackluster progress on overhauling the department are threefold, according to interviews with city officials and observers.

There is a belief among top brass in the Fire Department that many of the recommendations are unfounded. The firefighters union has vigorously opposed changes in policy without added compensation, something city officials say they have not been able to afford. And Menino said his level of determination to take on the powerful union and demand wholesale change has diminished over the years, preventing the "real overhaul" he has promised repeatedly since he took office.

"In all practicality, it's very difficult to achieve," Menino said in an interview last week. "You want to see this happen, but you [come] to understand there are other things that can be done much easier."

The mayor said that if he dug in his heels and demanded all the changes at once, the ensuing face-off would be untenably protracted and nasty.

"How long would that take us?" Menino said.

The union, International Association of Firefighters Local 718, has publicly harangued Menino more than once during contentious contract negotiations. Hundreds of firefighters have heckled him at appearances and fund-raisers. Firefighters picketing Menino's State of the City address several years ago shouted "Shame on you!" at the mayor and his wife as the couple passed by under police escort.

Union officials say their tough negotiating positions are a fight for "respect" for the service and sacrifice of the department's firefighters.

"Local 718 has been advocating for progress and to move this department forward for the past 10 years," union president Edward Kelly said. "We seem to hit stumbling blocks at City Hall whenever change requires a financial commitment."

The city is currently negotiating an employment contract with the union, the fourth since the first top-to-bottom review was completed in 1994. City officials have once again chosen to keep a significant number of the recommended changes off the table.

And the mayor has launched yet another outside review of the Fire Department, this time of management and substance-abuse-testing policies, after autopsy results reportedly indicated one firefighter was legally drunk and another had cocaine in his system when they died fighting a fire in a West Roxbury restaurant in August. Among the previous recommendations never adopted was that the city should impose random testing of firefighters for drugs and alcohol.

Some city watchdog groups say it is time for Menino to stop calling for more studies and start facing up to the union and making changes. "The mayor's called for all these studies - he just hasn't implemented any of it," said Jeffrey W. Conley, head of the Boston Finance Commission, an independent city agency that conducted the first review in 1994. "We think those things should be changed. It's time. I mean, good God."

The mayor's pledges to overhaul the department date to his first mayoral campaign, when he declared there would be no more "sacred cows" in the Boston Fire Department if he was elected.

"The same tough standards we apply to the Police Department, the schools, and every other agency in Boston must be applied to the Fire Department," Menino said in a January 1994 speech, just weeks after he was sworn in as mayor. "We must constantly ask the question: Are the taxpayers getting every dollar's worth of services they deserve?"

At the time, the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a business-funded city watchdog, had just issued a report saying the Fire Department was in dire need of an overhaul. The number of fires in the city had decreased significantly in the previous years, but the Fire Department had not changed at all. Critics joked that the department motto could have resembled that of a Chicago firehouse portrayed in the 1991 movie "Backdraft": "150 years of tradition unimpeded by progress."

In 1994, the Finance Commission, which is charged with rooting out waste and mismanagement in city government, completed its comprehensive review and made recommendations, including the elimination of divisions it deemed obsolete. But Menino did not act on the report. He commissioned his own audit from an outside consulting company.

Completed in 1995, the MMA Consulting Group report included most of the Finance Commission's previous suggestions and many others, such as reducing the number of fire districts from 11 to 10 and cutting supervisory positions because, it said, the department was top-heavy with chiefs.

The mayor's consultants also targeted for elimination some 1,200 fire alarm signal boxes on city streets, saying technological advances since their installation in the 1800s, including 911 emergency telephone service, rendered them obsolete. And, they said, fire and ambulance dispatch centers should be merged, because having two separate centers had caused delays in emergency response.

The recommendations went nowhere. Five years later, after a Globe series spotlighted a continuing lack of Fire Department reform, Menino called for another outside review, this time by a panel led by the state Public Safety secretary at the time, Kathleen M. O'Toole.

The O'Toole Commission's report, issued in 2000, covered the familiar problems that had been raised in earlier reviews, but it also went further - examining race relations in the department, including measuring progress since a 1974 federal court order mandating that the department increase its pool of minority applicants.

The commission also suggested the city adopt mandatory, random drug- and alcohol-testing of firefighters, provisions that have not been put in place but are now receiving a fresh look since the fatal West Roxbury fire. Officials who had been briefed on autopsy reports told the Globe that Firefighter Paul J. Cahill was drunk and that Firefighter Warren J. Payne had traces of cocaine in his system when the two died fighting a fire Aug. 29 at a Chinese restaurant.

In all, the Finance Commission, MMA Consulting, and the O'Toole Commission reviews produced some 82 unique recommendations.

Many of those were deemed unfounded by department brass. For example, the highest-ranking chief in the department says the 150-year-old fire alarm boxes are useful during emergencies in which telephone service is disrupted, the work performed by the vehicle maintenance division is "vital," and the Long Island Fire Brigade is necessary because the city cannot depend on Quincy for a speedy enough response to fires on the island.

Chief of Department Kevin MacCurtain also said a recommendation that fire officials diversify the upper ranks by encouraging nonwhite firefighters to take promotional exams is unnecessary.

"There are people who are happy being firefighters and don't want to be lieutenants," MacCurtain said last week in an interview.

Of 31 recommendations that required union bargaining, only five have been addressed in the four successive employment contracts since the first review was finished, the Globe found. And a majority of those were addressed only partially. For example, responding to a concern that all chiefs belonged to the same union as the firefighters they oversaw, the city won the right to create one nonunion chief position and change another chief position to a nonunion job. But in exchange for that concession by the union, the city agreed to offer the jobs first to union firefighters who would be promoted into those posts - diminishing the possibility of outside influence in the department.

The union also agreed several years ago to let Menino appoint a civilian fire commissioner, but the mayor did not do so until last year.

During current negotiations, city labor officials say, they are proposing changes that include random drug- and alcohol-testing and new sick leave policies that would require firefighters to produce medical documentation after 10 days of leave. The officials would not say whether they plan to modify their proposals after the new outside panel submits another set of recommendations.

Some city observers hope real change is on the horizon. "What was disturbing from the other reports is there was no public accountability," said Samuel R. Tyler, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau. "I would expect this time the mayor will use his leadership and political capital to ensure the key recommendations are implemented."

Donovan Slack can be reached at dslack@globe.com.

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