fb-pixel Skip to main content

With upcoming leadership transition, what’s next in the effort to diversify the Boston Fire Department?

The Boston Fire Department will soon have a new commissioner.Yoon S. Byun

The Boston Fire Department, a notoriously change-resistant institution that has come under criticism for its overwhelmingly white and male ranks, is on the cusp of leadership change.

Its current commissioner, John “Jack” Dempsey, is set to retire at the end of the month and Mayor Michelle Wu’s administration is expected to name his successor soon. Her office recently said the search process is underway, with interviews ongoing.

While it lacks the public cachet of Boston’s police commissioner or schools superintendent — searches for both those posts are in their final stages — the city’s fire commissioner plays a significant role in the landscape of municipal operations. BFD’s top official oversees more than 1,500 sworn firefighters and an annual budget of nearly $280 million.

Advertisement



Wu’s administration has been tight-lipped about any details regarding candidates. The number and names of finalists for the post have yet to be made public.

“The Mayor looks forward to selecting a new leader with strong experience to partner on the work ahead,” said a Wu spokeswoman in a Friday statement. “Partnering alongside our incoming fire commissioner, we will work to break down barriers to enhance opportunities for women and people of color to join our fire department.”

But whoever takes the reins will inherit an agency repeatedly blasted in recent years for failing to reflect the demographics of the city it serves. It continues to struggle with diversity; its latest recruiting class included just one woman among 90 recruits, and 22 recruits of color.

According to a recent Globe analysis of the city workforce, more than 94 percent of the Fire Department’s 1,600 workers are male and 72 percent are white. And earlier this year, a Fire Department supervisor suggested that when counting only sworn fire personnel in the department — meaning the firefighters — the department appears even more male-dominated.

Advertisement



“Instead of moving forward, we’ve moved backwards,” said Julia Rodriguez, a Charlestown native who has been a Boston firefighter for 33 years, of the department’s diversity.

Rodriguez favors a civilian manager to be the next commissioner, an outsider who is not a product of the department’s culture.

“Ninety-nine percent of the guys would disagree with me but they disagree because they’re afraid someone like that would come in and make changes because they’re not from the same clique,” she said during a Friday interview. “Nobody from within will make any changes.”

Pam Kocher, president of the Boston Municipal Research Bureau, a city watchdog, had similar thoughts, saying that the next head of BFD should be a civilian outsider who drives changes and brings greater accountability to the department and management expertise to the organization. A civilian commissioner should work closely with a “chief of department” who would be more involved in the agency’s day-to-day operations, she said.

Those two leaders, according to Kocher, “are needed to continually strive to improve operations and management of the Fire Department and challenge its embedded culture.”

“With little or no change, the Fire Department may continue to provide excellent fire suppression services, but at a high financial and human capital cost from operational and administrative inefficiencies, lack of diversity, and an unhealthy, outdated culture,” she said in a statement.

Attempts to bring in outsiders to run BFD have been met with resistance from members of the firefighters’ politically powerful union, Local 718. Some firefighters, for instance, chafed when former Boston mayor Thomas Menino brought in people who did not come up through BFD to run the department.

Advertisement



One of those outsiders, Roderick Fraser, was the first civilian leader of BFD since the 1970s, and his tenure was marked by intra-department friction. At one point, Fraser referred to the deputy chiefs of the department as “dinosaurs.”

Sophia Hall, the deputy litigation director at Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston, said diversity problems at BFD persist, adding that her organization is “hoping to see some change” in the status quo at the department. A new fire cadet program, which was in the planning stages earlier this year, could boost diversity, but it must be properly implemented, she said. That responsibility will fall to the next commissioner.

Local 718 has tangled with past commissioners and mayors alike.

The union clashed with Menino over an array of topics, including city residency requirements and mandatory drug testing. The labor group also locked horns with Menino’s successor, Martin J. Walsh. After supporting Walsh in his inaugural 2013 mayoral run, Local 718 ended up suing his administration in Suffolk Superior Court, alleging repeated violations of the union’s collective bargaining agreement.

Most recently, the union spearheaded a fight over a city vaccination requirement, a beef that dominated the earliest months of Wu’s mayoral tenure.

Sam Dillon, president of Local 718, said this week that the commissioner opening is “an incredible opportunity and great responsibility.”

Advertisement



“I look forward to working with whoever the commissioner ends up being,” he said.

“There is an opportunity to diversify our ranks and our leadership. That’s definitely something we look forward to working with everyone to achieve.”

Dillon recently replaced John Soares as head of the union. Soares had made history as the first person of color to lead that union in its history.

Sam Tyler, a City Hall observer who formerly served as the head of the municipal research bureau, said it’s a critical appointment and it’s crucial for the commissioner to have a “good working relationship to deal with the mayor.”

”It’s a department that has struggled with reform,” he said. “It has a culture of resisting change.”

Indeed, in 2019, female firefighters and local officials blasted a city-commissioned report that found a “male-dominated” culture resistant to reform. Critics of the report said it recycled old recommendations and did not go far enough to address systemic issues.

The report was the product of an outside counsel’s review of the department’s handling of harassment and discrimination allegations brought by women on the force. It wasn’t the first analysis to take aim at BFD’s culture. Another report from almost two decades prior came to damning conclusions, deeming the department technically proficient but a bastion of longtime sexism and racial discrimination.

In January 2020, a Boston firefighter was found guilty of assaulting a female colleague, in an incident that underscored the dwindling number of female firefighters in Boston and the hostility some of them said they have long endured, the Globe reported at the time. That year, the force had only 17 female firefighters, and the paltry number of women in the department remains a problem.

Advertisement



The department, which dates back to 1678, has never had a commissioner who is not a white man. In 2019, the city appointed its first-ever Black chief of operations for Boston Fire, and the department named its first female district chief that year.

But concerns about lack of diversity in supervisor roles at the department continue.

Dempsey, the city’s current fire commissioner, took charge in 2020 at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Walsh was still the city’s mayor. Known to be a quiet presence and someone who avoids the spotlight and political fights, Dempsey continued in that role when Walsh left City Hall last year to become US labor secretary and Kim Janey took the mayoral reins on an acting basis. He stayed on under Wu, who took office in November.

In a recent statement, Boston City Council President Ed Flynn said Boston is thankful for Dempsey’s service and work ethic. He wanted the next fire commissioner to emulate the outgoing one.

“It is critical that the next Boston Fire Commissioner also have these leadership qualities that maintain the trust of their fellow firefighters and the public,” he said. “The next fire commissioner needs to be committed to the safety of our residents, as well as accountable to firefighters and all residents throughout Boston’s neighborhoods.”















Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.