New Boston commissioner ready to tackle challenges

Boston Herald

BOSTON — The 30-year Boston fire vet­eran tapped to lead the city’s 1,400 firefighters is being hailed as a seasoned leader who will command the rank-and-file’s respect — but newly named Commissioner Joseph Finn’s insider status isn’t sitting well with city watchdogs, who question whether he’ll embrace long-called-for reforms.

Finn, praised as a deputy chief for his actions in March’s double-fatal Back Bay blaze, said yesterday he plans to quickly tackle naming his new command staff, a step critics say will be the first test of the department’s new direction. He said he plans to keep a “strong civilian management side” to his team.

“I envision two deputy commissioners, a strong administration and finance person on the budget, and a strong labor and legal person,” he said. “That would be the interior command structure, as I envision it.”

He signaled he has no plans to change how firefighters respond to blazes in the city’s narrow, crowded streets. “The way we have done this and been taught by our forefathers, guys who came before us, those tactics and strategies are sound,” he said.

Boston Municipal Research Bureau President Samuel Tyler said, “For us, the issue is, can now-Commissioner Finn transition from a union mindset … to a mindset of a more progressive management leader.” The fact that Mayor Martin J. Walsh tapped Finn to serve as both commissioner and chief already raises a red flag, he said.

“I would say at first blush, it seems to be a step back,” Tyler said.

City Hall insiders say Finn, a former union negotiator, is a smart leader who even in tense contract talks was respectful of the city’s view. But they say he’s unlikely to embrace changes pushed by former Commissioner Roderick Fraser and former Chief Steve Abraira, outsiders tasked with reforming the department’s culture. Among areas in need of reform, critics cite the fact that most command staff are union members; abuse of sick leave and disability policies; and staffing practices.

Gregory Sullivan, a former state inspector general now at the Pioneer Institute, said the department is one of the most costly in the country’s major cities, and should explore a merger with Boston EMS.

“I’m worried because the insiders have prevailed,” Sullivan said.

But Firefighters Local 718 President Richard Paris called Finn a “true leader.”

“If there is reform needed, I know he’ll do it. But it depends on what they mean by reform,” Paris said. “We have one of the lowest (fire) death rates of citizens. Our firefighters are trained well. I don’t know what reform they’re talking about.”

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