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peter-sellsJune 4, 2013, Toronto – Two weeks ago, I wrote about the leadership crisis facing the Boston Fire Department. Chief Steve Abraira was faced with an open revolt among his senior officers. Thirteen deputy chiefs wrote a letter to the mayor of Boston, criticizing Abraira for failing to take command of fire department operations at the marathon bombing scene on April 15. The letter was subsequently leaked to the media, making public the assertion that the chief’s response to the marathon bombings was inadequate and part of a pattern of shirking responsibility during emergencies.

June 4, 2013
By Peter Sells

June 4, 2013, Toronto – Two weeks ago, I wrote about the leadership crisis facing the Boston Fire Department. Chief Steve Abraira was faced with an open revolt among his senior officers. Thirteen deputy chiefs wrote a letter to the mayor of Boston, criticizing Abraira for failing to take command of fire department operations at the marathon bombing scene on April 15. The letter was subsequently leaked to the media, making public the assertion that the chief’s response to the marathon bombings was inadequate and part of a pattern of shirking responsibility during emergencies.

Abraira’s public response was that his policy was not to take command when his line officers have the situation under control, as per standard North American best practice in incident management. This position was backed up by fire commissioner Rodrick Fraser, who solidly supported Abraira.

In my blog, I said that the immediate issue was insubordination on the part of the disgruntled 13, but that Abraira and Fraser had had the better part of two years to communicate their incident management vision to the troops. Was this an ongoing leadership deficit or an acute crisis of poor followership? Was this the end result of group intransigence, steadfastly refusing to co-operate with the first Boston fire chief to be hired from outside the organization?

Well, it really doesn’t matter now. Abraira has tendered his resignation, effective June 7. Regardless of the reasons and who’s position was right or wrong, it would be nearly impossible for Abraira to continue effectively under the current circumstances. I don’t know the man, but I hope that he evaluated the situation as objectively as he could, and simply decided that he didn’t need the hassle. Although he may have been able to lead 13 horses to water, he couldn’t necessarily make them think.

That task will now fall to Deputy Chief John Hasson, a 40-year veteran of the department who has been appointed by Fraser as acting chief. Hasson is a signatory to the letter of non-confidence in Abraira. Maybe he is in place as an administrative housekeeper until a permanent fire chief is hired, but having publicly taken an extreme position will make it very difficult for Hasson to lead any meaningful healing process. His senior staff, the rest of the Boston Fire Department and the city council will be expecting quick and decisive leadership. Clearly, it looked easy enough when the letter to the mayor was written. The public release of that letter, which brought this whole affair into the sunlight, will now ensure that all of the North American fire service will be watching closely as well.

In 1789, master’s mate Fletcher Christian didn’t like the way the HMS Bounty was being run by commanding Lt. William Bligh, so he rallied the rest of the malcontents and took over the ship. By 1808, Christian was variously said to have died of natural causes, committed suicide, gone insane or been murdered. Bligh was governor of New South Wales.

Just sayin’.

Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor. He sits on the advisory council of the Institution of Fire Engineers, Canada branch. Peter is president of NivoNuvo Consulting, Inc, specializing in fire-service management. Contact him at peter.nivonuvo@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter at @NivoNuvo.