It’s never easy to be shamed publicly. That’s exactly what happened to Boston Fire Chief Steve Abraira, who recently was condemned by 13 out of 14 deputy chiefs through a no-confidence vote pointing to his “indefensible” leadership during the Boston Marathon bombings. The chiefs claimed Abraira failed to assume command when he reached the bombing scene at the race's finish line on April 15, when pressure-cooker bombs exploded killing three and injuring 264 others.
“His justification for failing to take action is indefensible,” the deputies wrote in the April 26 letter, according to the Boston Herald. “… You can unequivocally consider this letter a vote of no confidence in Chief Abraira.”
A motion of no-confidence primarily is a statement or vote that states that a person in a superior position is no longer deemed fit to hold that position. It has no real legal basis; simply, it is a tool for a group to condemn publicly the actions of someone in an official position. The 13 deputies used the vote to chastise their chief for failing to take command of the Boyston Street bombing site, leaving the task fully to his inferiors — among other complaints.
In the Herald piece, Abraira said he is in administration and does not believe he should take command at incidents, except in extreme circumstances. Abraira is city’s first chief hired from outside the department, having previously served as chief in Dallas. He changed a long-standing policy last year that required the highest-ranking chief to take command at incident scenes. He said changes were made to comply with national standards.
“If it’s necessary for me to assume command of our every day operation at incidents, then something’s wrong,” he said.
I reached out to several chiefs about this controversy, and finally spoke with Robert Winston, a retired Boston district fire chief. He said it was rumored a vote of no confidence was in the works after the Boston Marathon bombings.
“I do not defend this chief of the Boston FD for his actions or lack of taking command at this most serious of incidents,” Winston said. “He should have taken command.”
However, Abraira’s choice to leave command to his deputies isn’t unusual. Winston said throughout the region and country, many fire chiefs do not take command at fire scenes and at other types of serious incidents.
Indeed, the issue may be less about taking command and more about disparate fire cultures. Abraira is not from Boston and did not serve on the department. This always creates tension, as the chief was not promoted from within.
“He is fighting a cultural battle between himself and most members of the BFD that has created differences,” Winston said. “Personally, I had the misfortune of trying to deal with cultural differences within the fire services when I moved out west and then down south.”
Having an outside chief seemed to surface as an issue online when the article on the no-confidence vote went viral. Those who commented about the article specifically pointed to the chief’s Texas roots — not his command decisions.
Abraira has the support of Mayor Thomas Menino, who said publicly that it was normal to have tension within the department.
"The fire chief is relatively new on the job, he does come from another fire department, he's an outsider and on a regular basis, when an outsider comes to the fire department, you have issues," Menino said. "There is always that little tension."
It seems to me this issue is about outsiders changing a fire culture — whether wrong or right — and getting beat up for it. So is it better to promote from within to meet the cultural demands of a fire department, or should cities feel free to bring in outside people for new ideas?
What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.