In a first, Boston picks outsider for fire chief; Abraira a veteran of Fla., Texas departments

Boston announced today that the city had hired its first Hispanic fire chief, tapping a career firefighter from Florida to lead one of the nation’s oldest fire departments.

Steve Abraira, 56, will take over a fire department in Boston that has struggled with diversity. Abraira will not only be the first Hispanic to serve as chief, he will be the first leader the department has hired from outside its ranks.

“I go in with an open mind and a clean slate. I do a lot of observing and ask a lot of questions—‘Why are we doing it this way?’” said Abraira, whose father was a firefighter and whose son is currently a firefighter in Miami.

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After 26 years of rising through the ranks in the Miami Fire Department, Abraira in 2000 was named chief of the Dallas Fire Department, which has more than 2,000 members. But Abraira resigned abruptly after five years following a dispute with the Dallas city manager. Since 2007, Abraira has been chief in Palm Bay, Fla., leading a department with roughly 140 firefighters near Cape Canaveral.

Boston paid a head-hunting firm $24,000 to conduct a nationwide search to find the new chief. Five internal candidates applied for the job, three deputy fire chiefs and two district fire chiefs, and were interviewed, but the job ultimately went to Abraira.

“He’s not afraid to take on issues and he leads by example. He gets stuff done,” Commissioner Roderick Fraser said today.

Asked about the clashes in the past between fire administration and the city’s strong fire union, Abraira said, “Remember this. I was a union member. I was in Local 587 for my entire career.” He noted that after he was promoted out of the union he continued to pay dues for seven years.

Abraira will replace current Chief Ronald W. Keating, who has reached the mandatory retirement age of 65.

Born in Fort Riley, Kan., Abraira grew up in Miami, where his father was a firefighter. At age 19, Abraira joined the Miami Fire Department and served alongside his father.

Abraira earned promotions quickly. His posts included driver engineer, fire service instructor, hazardous materials commander, district chief and, finally, assistant chief of emergency response.

After 26 years, Abraira left the Miami Fire Department in 2000 to become the first Hispanic chief to lead the Dallas Fire Department.

In Dallas, Abraira quickly established his presence. In his first seven months as chief, he visited scores of fire stations and responded to nearly 60 multi-alarm fires, according to a 2001 story published by the Dallas Morning News.

Abraira focused on improving emergency medical service and upgrading firefighting technology, according to the newspaper. He also made significant changes: Abraira instituted new uniforms and added the word “rescue” to the department’s name, so it became Dallas Fire-Rescue.

The new chief was well regarded among firefighters in Dallas, according to the Morning News. But Abraira struggled with big city politics.

After five years in Dallas, Abraira resigned under pressure from the city manager. Abraira wrote a “scathing letter” to the fire department’s employees that said he was forced to resign because he would not sign off on cost-cutting measures, according to the Morning News.

The cuts, Abraira said in his letter, would have taken firefighters off the streets and put lives in danger. “Unfortunately, [the city manager] has little or no respect for the outstanding service that you provide or for me personally,” Abraira wrote, according to the Morning News.

The Dallas city manager defended her decision and said she was not skimping on public safety.

Two years later in 2007, Abraira won the chief’s job in Palm Bay, Fla. The department covers 100 square miles with five fire stations and a budget of $12 million, according to the newspaper Florida Today.

In Boston, Abraira will be back in a big city. Boston may be less than 50 square miles, but the fire department has more than 1,600 personnel, 35 fire stations, and an annual budget of almost $182 million.