Richard McCarthy has been nominated to be the next fire marshal for Maine, overseeing the office responsible for fire education and arson investigations. Staff reviews, however, show fire investigators have expressed concern for years about how their workplace is managed. Credit: Photo illustration by Erin Rhoda.

The nominee to be Maine’s next fire marshal told lawmakers Monday that he wants to improve communication and would welcome an outside investigation into the agency after the Bangor Daily News surfaced long-running concerns from staff about leadership and a toxic workplace.

“I want you to know that I have a vision for our agency, where it should be, and I have the passion and drive to make it happen,” Richard McCarthy told the Legislature’s criminal justice and public safety committee during his confirmation hearing Monday afternoon.

“When I joined [the Office of State Fire Marshal] in 2001, I was told I was joining the premiere fire prevention agency for the state. I’ll be honest, I don’t think we are there yet,” he said.

Last Thursday, the BDN reported on previously undisclosed reports that members of the agency’s fire investigations division had complained over the years about the agency’s leadership and working conditions. During a series of interviews with social workers in 2018 and 2021, they reported a deepening distrust with their superiors and expressed hopelessness that it would improve.

The concerns prompted scrutiny from lawmakers Monday, who said they’d also fielded concerns about the agency ahead of the hearing but ultimately voted 8-4 to advance McCarthy’s nomination to the Maine Senate for confirmation.

“The article was more about the investigations division. That is something not under my purview. One of my goals is to improve communication on both sides,” said McCarthy, who in his recent role as assistant fire marshal oversaw the inspections side of the division.

Still, he was aware of the agency’s morale issues and would strive to build a more cohesive agency, he said. If confirmed, McCarthy also told lawmakers that he would make it a priority to ensure that a recently hired lieutenant in charge of the investigations division became certified in fire investigations.

When asked how he would feel about the state’s Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability investigating the agency, he responded, “There is nothing I want to hide.”

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck also stood by his nominee, including telling the committee that he learned about problems at the fire marshal’s office when he first took office.

“I came in hearing we had a mandate for change,” Sauschuck said. “That article should be aimed at me. I’m in charge of the Department of Public Safety.”

“I think [McCarthy] is a change agent that can make the proper moves,” he continued. “In my perspective, we are that close to finishing a lengthy transition in that unit.”

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Callie Ferguson

Callie Ferguson is an investigative reporter for the Bangor Daily News. She writes about criminal justice, police and housing.