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Boston fire commissioner, union at odds over proposed cut to cadet training time

Council petition seeks to cut the time spent in training in half, getting cadets into the academy faster


Boston Mayor Michelle Wu speaks at a memorial held at the station for Engine 33 and Ladder 15 for firefighters that lost their lives 10 years ago at the 298 Beacon Street fire on March 26.

Staff Photo By Stuart Cahill/Boston Herald

By Gayla Cawley
Boston Herald

BOSTON — The Boston fire commissioner is at odds with the firefighters union over a City Council proposal to cut the required training time for cadets in half, from two years to one, a year into a program aimed at diversifying the ranks.

The home rule petition filed by Councilor Brian Worrell last month, and co-sponsored by Council President Ruthzee Louijeune and Councilor Tania Fernandes Anderson, states that the current two-year training requirement for cadets “limits the appointments of qualified candidates and hinders the ability of the Boston Fire Department to reach necessary staffing levels.”

“This change will enable quality candidates to advance more quickly, gaining experience while also promoting a more diverse workforce by easing the financial challenges associated with the current low salaries for cadets,” Worrell said this week at a City Council committee hearing.

Cadets are paid $32,000 a year during the two-year program, Worrell said. It was created by a home rule petition signed into law by the governor in December 2021, and designed to “expand opportunities for underrepresented populations to join the yearly firefighter academy class,” the mayor’s office said in a prior statement.

The inaugural class of 32 cadets was announced by Mayor Michelle Wu in May 2023 — with nine women and 17 people of color — but is now at 31 after one candidate joined the military, city officials said.

The Boston Fire Department has faced criticism in recent years for its lack of gender and racial diversity, with some lawsuits around issues in the workplace.

The proposed change, strongly advocated by Fire Commissioner Paul Burke while testifying on behalf of the Wu administration at the day’s hearing, would make some of the cadets eligible for the next Boston Fire Academy class.

Burke, in his remarks, framed the issue as a “pretty simple” one, in terms of changing “one word” on a piece of legislation that the state passed, from “two” years to “one” year of required training before cadets are qualified to “join the drill class to be full-time firefighters.”

“The reason for the request is we have a group of cadets in there now, 31 of them,” Burke said. “They’re qualified. They’re ready. They’ve been trained for a year, and we’d like to get them in the next drill class.”

Cadets, who must be city residents for three years and range from 18-25 years old, may receive preference to join the academy over other candidates on the civil service exam list, but can only account for one-third of the class, Councilor Gabriela Coletta , government operations committee chair, said on Wednesday.

“We’d like to have the next drill class as one-third of cadets,” Burke said. “We’re hoping to do this because we feel this is a way to hire city kids in the fire department. It’s one of the most sought-after jobs in the city, and a lot of these city kids don’t have access to it. We feel that this would give them access.”

One year of hands-on experience in the cadet program is adequate, Burke asserted, saying that the drill class at the fire academy could provide the rest of the necessary training.

The fire commissioner and other advocates for the proposal argued that cadets would have a leg up on others in the fire academy, given the training they have already received compared to other candidates who go the traditional route of qualifying for employment through passing the civil service exam.

The firefighters union was not as receptive to the proposal, however, and others pointed out that military veterans who qualify through the exam have extensive training upon reaching the academy, by virtue of their service.

Boston Firefighters Local 718 President Sam Dillon said the union supports the hiring process traditionally conducted by the Civil Service Commission because it’s third party and designed “to try and limit and remove any type of nepotism or political influence” into the hiring of a Boston firefighter.

While the union does not oppose the cadet program, or creating an alternative pathway of employment to be a city firefighter, Dillon said it does have some questions about why the change is needed so soon into the program’s inception, and whether slashing training time would impact firefighter safety.

“This is a very dangerous job,” Dillon said. “It’s very physically, mentally and emotionally demanding. You need to have a program that’s exposing potential recruits and potential firefighters to that so that we’re not only educating them about the job, we’re allowing them to make an educated decision on whether or not this is a profession that they do wish to pursue.”

Michael Gaskins, diversity recruitment officer for the Boston Fire Department who oversees the cadet program, said the changes are being proposed now, in part, due to how expensive it is becoming to live in the city.

Dillon maintained, however, the proposed changes to the program seem “rushed.” Others pointed out that the Boston Police cadet program remains unchanged at a two-year training requirement.

Several councilors raised concerns as well, including Ed Flynn, who wanted to ensure military veterans, who receive civil service preference over civilians, would not be negatively impacted by the increased frequency by which cadets could join the academy.

The fire commissioner, who is paid $290,000 per year, was charged with overseeing the creation of the fire cadet program and is required to “ensure the commencement of three fire cadet classes prior to July 1, 2025,” per the terms of his three-year contract with the city. He was hired by the mayor in June 2022.

“With all due respect, commissioner, it is just one word, but it literally cuts the whole program in half,” Councilor Erin Murphy said. “It just changes it drastically.”

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