As the second in command at the state fire marshal’s office faces an upcoming confirmation hearing to become the agency’s next leader, previously undisclosed reports show staff have voiced concerns for years about how administrators managed their workplace.
Michael Sauschuck, commissioner of the Maine Department of Public Safety, announced last week that, with the governor’s approval, he has recommended Richard McCarthy to be the next state fire marshal overseeing the agency responsible for fire education and arson investigations.
McCarthy has worked for the agency for 22 years. As assistant fire marshal, he oversees the division of the office responsible for building inspections and fire prevention. If confirmed by the Maine Senate following a legislative committee hearing Monday, McCarthy would succeed his former boss, Joseph Thomas, who retired as fire marshal in December.
McCarthy stands to inherit long-standing workplace challenges, however, as employees within the fire marshal’s office have repeatedly raised concerns about the agency’s leadership in a series of reviews, according to documents obtained by the Bangor Daily News. Fire investigators said they found dealing with management more fraught than responding to deadly fires, felt as if they were pushed to find that crimes were committed and weren’t given enough time to complete their work.
In 2018 and 2021, an Augusta-based mental health organization conducted interviews with members of the agency’s investigations unit as part of an effort to address the trauma they experience on the job, which can include responding to fires and explosions, interviewing victims, and removing dead bodies from fire scenes. Investigators are sworn law enforcement personnel.
But the social workers discovered that the first responders felt their work was less stressful than dealing with people within their own agency.
“There is broad hopelessness that this report will have any impact on administration,” the clinicians summed up in 2021. “There are also concerns about the absolute confidentiality of the information, and the potential for investigators to be targeted.”
Sauschuck said the results of the reports remain a concern to him. In 2019, when he became commissioner of public safety, he met individually with all 12 fire investigators and three sergeants. Out of those meetings, he decided to instill more structure by creating and filling a new lieutenant position to oversee the investigations division, he said.
But because the reviews were intended to evaluate the health and wellness of employees in the investigations division, no one from the prevention division, including McCarthy, participated in them or read the final reports, Sauschuck said.
He said he was confident that, if confirmed to his new role, McCarthy would work closely with the investigations division “to address the needs of its employees and strengthen their mental health and wellness to the greatest extent possible.”
McCarthy “is a highly respected leader whose integrity and decades of experience position him well to take the helm of the agency,” Sauschuck said. He nominated McCarthy after a formal hiring process that began with 11 internal and external candidates.
McCarthy did not respond to a voicemail and an email seeking comment about his management of the agency or the report’s findings.
The BDN was unable to reach Thomas, the former fire marshal, by phone or email. He did not respond to a Facebook message seeking comment.
In 2018, clinicians completed confidential interviews with 10 investigators as part of what was called a resiliency review.
“Many investigators reported that the politics within the office and the dynamics within the unit were the most stressful part of the job,” according to the 2018 report that summarized their interviews. The report does not name anyone.
Staff reported that the agency’s leaders were not concerned enough about retention and said they felt expendable. There was “a lack of commitment to quality employees,” they said, and shared how those who spoke up about problems “are perceived as just being greedy.”
“Some investigators were unsure that others, including superiors, had their back. This was an experience that was in direct contrast to what they had experienced in their other community law enforcement experience,” the report continued.
Staff also described how specific changes, such as the elimination of overtime, had made their work more difficult. Zero overtime meant some investigators didn’t go to the scenes of fires, left investigations incomplete and wrote reports for court on their own time.
At the same time, they reported valuing the uniqueness and self-directedness of their work and their ability to bring closure to some victims. The clinician interviewing the investigators found them to be “exceptionally committed to the work they are trying to do,” “highly skilled and knowledgeable in their field,” and “committed to improving their work environment.”
“‘We have the potential to be the best agency in the state,’” said one employee, according to the 2018 report. “‘Lack of leadership in dealing with a ‘few bad eggs’ is contaminating it.’”
Three years later, Crisis and Counseling Centers in Augusta conducted a second review to see how the environment had changed. Interviews with 13 investigators in November and December 2021 showed there was even less trust in management, especially after some alleged violations of a union contract and promotions that suggested “cronyism and favoritism,” according to the 2021 resiliency report, though it didn’t provide details.
“The new administration has taken some steps that appear to have created less trust and more of an ‘us vs them’ mindset,” it said. “This dynamic has been left unaddressed until it now leaves some investigators unable to bring forth interpersonal or mental health needs without concerns of retaliation.”
Some investigators said they experienced pressure to determine a crime rather than find a fire’s origin to be undeterminable. They shared how problems with morale and distrust were enhanced by a lack of full unit meetings; when the meetings were scheduled not everyone was required to be present, while others were expected to drive long distances to attend. And they reported that expectations were inconsistent, with some people feeling as if they were being micromanaged or set up to fail.
The report concluded with a call for improvements to communication, transparency, trust and leadership, including to “consider a style that is less authoritarian.”