Boriskie steps down as chief; Flanagan takes over

January 19, 2010 4:36:00 PM PST
Phil Boriskie stepped down as chief of the Houston Fire Department Tuesday morning, and Assistant Chief Rick Flanagan was named acting chief. After sending a letter to his command staff earlier this morning, Boriskie, a 26-year veteran with the department, spoke at HFD headquarters. He touted his accomplishments within the district, saying, "It has been a privilege to be a fire chief and a privilege to serve the City of Houston".

Boriskie, who has served as chief of Houston Fire Department for the last six years, reflected on progress made during his tenure, noting better equipment and enhanced training for his men and women.

"I reflect back over these last six years, the first five years, over five years it was really a pretty smooth ride," he said.

But his tone changed as he sharply addressed critics who Boriskie claims have injected politics in a place it doesn't belong.

"We struggled with competing agendas but I will tell you, I can say this with a clearer heart -- I have attempted to lead in these struggles in the way I firmly believe is right," said Boriskie.

There was no specific mention of recent allegations, harassment and discrimination within the fire department, which begs the question whether or not that Herculean controversy played a role in the chief's decision to step down.

"There were a lot controversial issues under his command. He handled them with classic style," said District Chief David Elliot with the Houston Fire Department. "We are proud to work for him. It's a heartbreaking moment for a lot of the men in the field."

The chief had faced scrutiny over the months for allegations of sexism and racism within the ranks. Boriskie has been under fire since July, when two female firefighters found racist and sexist graffiti written in their fire station, one of several incidents that spurred concerns about widespread mistreatment of women and minorities within the department.

The attorney for Jane Draycott, one of those female firefighters, says he wonders if the chief is not being made a scapegoat.

"On the surface he always seemed very receptive and open to any discussions that would improve the fire department," said Joe Ahmad, Draycott's attorney.

However, others wondered if the chief didn't do enough to fix the problems. Council Member Jolanda Jones had pushed for the chief's resignation.

"I think it's for the best. I'm glad the mayor is handling this," said Jones.

About half an hour later, Houston Mayor Annise Parker announced that Flanagan is now the acting fire chief of the department. Boriskie will remain with the Houston Fire Department, but will serve as a district chief, which is the position he was promoted from back in 2004.

The mayor says over the last month she has spoken with the chief numerous times. She says she urged him to stay.

Mayor Parker stressed that the new chief's priority should include getting more female firefighters into the ranks and resolving the ongoing problems. While standing firm in her belief the department was not broken, she did acknowledge the problems that have persisted.

"Whether Chief Boriskie stays or goes, we will fix the problems in the fire department," Mayor Parker said. "The command staff will be part of that decision or there will be changes made. I am not at all implying that Chief Boriskie had to go to make that happen, but we will fix the problems in the fire department. "

The union Tuesday said finding a replacement won't be easy.

"He has the respect of the men and women who do this job and so it's a difficult change," said Jeff Canyon of the Firefighters Union.

Mayor Parker said Flanagan will be considered for the top spot, but she will be searching outside the department as well. The mayor added that this is a very important decision and she doesn't want to rush it, so there is no timetable for finding a permanent chief.

Flanagan said he is ready to get to work as acting chief and his number one priority is to keep everyone safe.

"I look forward to working with Mayor Parker. There is a tremendous amount of work to be done. This is, and I want to reiterate that, this is a great department. The members of this department serve diligently every single day. We've had some dark clouds," said acting Chief Flanagan. "The main thing for which I stand is to keep everyone safe."

Flanagan is a 30-year veteran of the Houston Fire Department and has been managing the Logistics Command within the department. Flanagan has a Bachelor of Science degree in Education from Texas Christian University. He holds training certifications including Houston Community College Instructor, Emergency Communications Dispatch, Arson Investigation and Criminal Justice.