Fire Commissioner Roderick Fraser yesterday lashed out at union pop shots in defending his top chief's plans to spend as much as $1 million outfitting the department's 1,400 jakes with spiffy polo shirts and state-of-the-art helmets as a way to look more professional and battle fires more safely.
“We are buying new NFPA-compliant helmets. That's not a fancy uniform issue, that's a protecting-people issue,” Fraser said, adding the new composite helmets would replace traditional, less rigid all-leather helmets that do not meet National Fire Protection Association standards.
Fraser fired back at comments made by Boston Firefighters Local 718 President Richard Paris in a Herald story yesterday. Paris doused a proposal by fire Chief Steve Abraira to outfit the firefighters with golf shirts, name tags and new helmets. The union boss said he would rather see the money spent on buying new fire trucks and repairing existing ones, which he said are sometimes out of service for long stretches.
“I wouldn't mind having our guys looking better,” he said, “but I'd rather have the fire trucks running and spend it on fire apparatus for the safety of our members. Looking professional doesn't save their lives if the equipment is not safe.”
Fraser, who is locked in contract talks with the union, called the statements a “red herring,” saying his department has greatly improved the safety of its fleet since the 2009 death of fire Lt. Kevin Kelley in a runaway fire truck with faulty brakes.
“I don't really understand their reason for complaining. … We are buying safer helmets for our people and we are buying safer apparatus,” he said, adding that since 2007 the department has spent $19 million equipping 13 engine companies, 10 ladder crews and both rescue units with new rigs.
The modern trucks have side-curtain airbags, stability control systems and panel lights that alert officers if their crew aboard is wearing seatbelts.
Fraser said the department's overhauled maintenance unit, where certified mechanics replaced firefighters, now take trucks out of service to perform “stem-to-stern” inspections, even when they come in for simple repairs.
As for the polo shirts, Fraser said he wants his firefighters “looking professional when on the street,” especially the 800 EMTs who respond to medical emergencies — half of the department's calls — and are required to have to name tags.
“We want our people to be proud to be in uniform,” Fraser said, “instead of (wearing) some crappy old T-shirt.”