A legislative committee has tentatively approved a confidential survey of employees in the Office of the State Fire Marshal in response to complaints about the workplace culture and treatment of fire victims. 

The 5-4 vote Friday by the Government Oversight Committee was not final because three members were absent and have until Tuesday to vote. 

Rich McCarthy. Maine Department of Public Safety.

Complaints about the office surfaced when a new fire marshal was nominated to take over the agency in February. Richard McCarthy served as deputy fire marshal for 22 years before being confirmed by the state Senate and taking over the office this month. McCarthy replaced former Fire Marshal Joseph Thomas, who retired in December following 22 years at the Department of Public Safety.

After the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted in favor of McCarthy’s nomination, its leaders sent a letter to the oversight committee asking for an official review of the office by the Legislature’s investigative agency, the Office of Program Evaluation and Government Accountability.

“We both received phone calls from former and current employees of the fire marshal’s office who expressed deep reservations about confirming McCarthy, who served for 22 years as the assistant fire marshal,” wrote the co-chairs, Sen. Pinny Beebe-Center, D-Rockland, and Rep. Suzanne Salisbury, D-Westbrook. “In particular, these former and current employees expressed concern about confirming an individual who had been in a position of leadership amidst a workplace culture rife with misogyny, lack of care for fire victims, and unresponsiveness to employee complaints and community needs.”

McCarthy has pledged to address the complaints and said he welcomed a review, members of the oversight committee said Friday. McCarthy was not available for an interview Friday, a spokesperson said.

However, oversight committee members were divided about whether to order the state’s accountability office to conduct a round of confidential interviews with employees or give the new fire marshal time to address the workplace problems first. A majority present for the vote argued that the survey would help McCarthy improve the workplace culture.

In his role as deputy, McCarthy oversaw the Inspections and Prevention Division of the fire marshal’s office. The division inspects buildings and is responsible for reviewing plans for new and renovated commercial buildings, verifying Americans with Disabilities Act compliance, and inspecting mechanical rides and anything licensed by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Staff Writer John Terhune contributed to this report.

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