Several new firefighters have city connections

Several new firefighters have city connections

Officials: No one received special treatment

This story corrects an error about Councilman Terry Mercer's relative. It is his nephew, not his son, who is among those just hired.

PAWTUCKET - At least eight of the city's 21 new firefighters appear to be related in some way to current or former city officials or members of the department.

And while rumors are swirling about so many family ties, representatives for Mayor Donald Grebien say it's likely a natural outworking of the process in place.

In many cases, it's a matter of sons following their fathers into the career they grew up watching.

This year's hiring process was more "fair" and "close to the vest" than ever, officials maintain, as they whittled down an original field of 138 candidates to just 21.

All of the 21 firefighters hired are highly qualified for the department, according to Grebien's administration, and all were hired based on their finish near the top of their class.

Director of Administration Tony Pires noted that the only female hired among the 21 new firefighters, Tiffany Pacheco, is the daughter of Barbara Pacheco, secretary to Fire Chief William Sisson, but Pacheco was also the top fire recruit and was elected president of the class by her peers. Tiffany Pacheco's brother Timothy is also a firefighter in the department.

Pires was not aware of all of the connections brought up by the fire official, but was aware of four out of the eight, Pacheco, Terrence O'Neill, son of former City Councilor Chris O'Neill, Kurt Mercer, nephew of current City Councilor Terry Mercer, and Sean Gannon, son of Grebien's former Director of Administration and current Municipal Court Judge Jack Gannon.

Besides Pacheco, two other freshman firefighters also have parents working for the department. Derek McGarry is the son of Lt. Thomas McGarry, and Alexander Marshall is the son of firefighter David Marshall.

New firefighter Noah LeBlanc appears to be a second cousin to Grebien's wife Laureen. As the mayor puts it, LeBlanc "is Laureen's father's father's brother's son's son."

Additionally, Pires said that another new firefighter, Michael McMahon, is the son of his friend.

According to Pires, city officials implemented a "very unique" process that had never been in place before. Applicants had to have been certified in EMT, cardiac and agility to even apply, he said.

The process started before officials even knew they would be getting a two-year $4.2 million federal grant to hire new firefighters, said Pires, and therefore couldn't have known that all 21 graduates of a fire academy would be hired.

Many of the applicants were "raw recruits" who did not understand the basics of what they needed, said Pires, and several dropped out early. It's only natural that applicants who grew up in firefighter families were well ahead in some areas, he said.

Officials gave applicants preliminary rankings based on their written test scores and oral interview. Candidates were ranked on the cumulative scores and then given an extra five points if they were Pawtucket residents, said Pires.

Several high-scoring candidates ended up not qualifying for the fire academy because they lacked an EMT license or agility certification, he said.

Based on the results of the written and oral tests, officials took the top 21 candidates, said Pires.

"It doesn't amaze me or surprise me that there would be a lot of those candidates who would be from families from Pawtucket," he said.

Pires said that officials can't exclude applicants just because they're related to someone in city government or in the Fire Department. Could there have been biases at work during the verbal portion of the tests?

"Sure, we're big kids here, but in order to get to that level you have to score," said Pires.

Several "connected" individuals failed to make the top 21 firefighters chosen for the fire academy, he noted. Some who earned a spot in the department, like Mercer, had tried before and not made it, he said.

Officials were very careful to issue a wide call for candidates, said Pires, reaching out to minority groups and anyone else they could think of. The same process was followed on the police side, he said, and it doesn't appear that any of those who made the department had connections to the city or department.

The fire training academy was a "grueling and difficult process" whether a fire candidate was "connected or not," said Pires.

Fire Chief William Sisson told The Breeze he attributes the high number of "connected" firefighters to the good old-fashioned practice of children following in their parents' footsteps. A high number of candidates who applied had family members who were firefighters in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, he said, many with multiple generations serving in public safety professions.

"It's like, if your dad is an attorney, you're an attorney," he said. "I can tell you, my father was a police officer and my mother was a nurse."

Pawtucket was fortunate to have "a lot of outstanding candidates," said Sisson and all had the same opportunity as everyone else.

Grebien also chimed in Monday.

"It's important to remember and not lose sight of the context, from the rigorous outside independent testing to the required certification such as EMT and cardiac certification," he said, it was an "objective process the city conducted in search of the most qualified candidates."