Top N.C. fire safety officials fired in internal feud with insurance commissioner
Leadership in the Office of State Fire Marshal is caught in an squabble over legislation about changes in the fire marshal’s office
By Dan Kane, Kyle Ingram
The Charlotte Observer
RALEIGH, N.C. — State Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey dismissed his top staff in the Office of State Fire Marshal on Tuesday as he and state lawmakers battle over whether the office should be an independent agency led by someone with firefighting experience.
Brian Taylor, who Causey appointed to lead the office in 2018, confirmed the three dismissals in a telephone interview with The News & Observer. Taylor’s title is chief state fire marshal, but until recently, the state insurance commissioner carried the title of state fire marshal. It had been that way since the late 1940s, until state lawmakers passed legislation this session creating an independent agency. Republicans dominate the legislature, and Causey is a Republican.
“This is really a political fight between the commissioner and the legislature,” Taylor said, “so I would basically call it a family feud or family fight and the Office of State Fire Marshal is caught up in the middle of it.”
The Department of Insurance did not respond to questions from The News & Observer about the firings but issued a press release Tuesday evening naming a replacement for Taylor.
Causey has blasted the legislation, which began with Senate Bill 363, filed in March. While that bill did not move out of a legislative committee, it was largely inserted into the 625-page state budget bill that became law early this month. Last week, state lawmakers passed another bill, Senate Bill 409, that added more conditions to the transition, including protecting the jobs of Taylor and others in the office.
The bill also would have made Taylor the new state fire marshal, replacing Causey. Though it doesn’t say his name, it does state that the chief state fire marshal, which was Taylor’s position, would serve as state fire marshal until the General Assembly officially confirmed someone to fill the role.
The bill now heads to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, whose communications director told The N&O on Tuesday that he is “reviewing the legislation.” Cooper can choose to sign the bill, veto it, or let it become law without his signature.
Causey and Republican lawmaker dispute origins of fight
Causey has alleged that lawmakers pursued the change to punish him for opposing a bill dealing with Blue Cross Blue Shield, one of the largest insurance providers in the state. Sen. Jim Perry, a Lenoir County Republican who sponsored SB 363, pointed out that he filed the bill weeks before the Blue Cross legislation was discussed in the General Assembly.
“I think our firefighters deserve to have somebody in a full-time capacity who’s a fireman focused on them,” Perry told The N&O. “I mean, that’s just good common sense.”
Taylor said Causey had warned lawmakers that the budget provision meant that “our jobs were not safe.”
“The office would be torn apart, basically dismembered, and look different once January comes,” Taylor said. “And so with this piece of legislation I started getting calls from the legislature saying they would protect me and my leadership and just to stand by, and this is what the outcome was.”
Taylor said the legislation caused the commissioner to suspect that Taylor and his staff were working against him. Taylor said that wasn’t the case. He said he supported the office remaining as it had been within the insurance department.
Which officials were fired?The others Causey dismissed, Taylor said, were Mike Williams, the senior deputy commissioner of fire and safety services, and Brent Heath, who is the legislative liaison for the office.
A few weeks ago, Perry said Causey’s legislative liaison visited his office and “sent this threat,” saying how he was afraid that the new changes could affect the Office of State Fire Marshal. Perry said it felt like Causey was threatening to fire key figures in the office if the changes to his position weren’t reversed.
“I just don’t understand what’s going on in the man’s head, and then to come in and terminate these firefighters right here before Thanksgiving, impact their families when they’ve done nothing wrong,” Perry said.
Scott Mullins, president of the Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics of NC, posted on X, formerly Twitter, that Causey’s moves were “disgusting” after learning from Taylor that he and others had been dismissed.
“This is another reason why we have always said that the state fire marshal’s office should be separate from the Department of Insurance,” Mullins told The N&O. “Brian Taylor’s job is to look out for firefighters and the public, and he has done that. So it’s disappointing that he’s being used as a political pawn.”
Taylor first became a volunteer firefighter in 1988. He went on to become the fire marshal and emergency management coordinator for the City of Albemarle, a position he held for 25 years.
Tony Bailey, Deputy State Fire Marshal of Fire and Rescue Services, will replace Taylor as chief state fire marshal. Craig Jarman, a fire investigator and special agent with OSFM, will replace Bailey.
“These appointments will continue our close working relationships with fire departments across the state,” Causey said in a release. “My goal as Commissioner has always been to help our fire departments, both volunteer and career fire departments as much as possible. This provides the best possible service to the residents in those respective fire districts.”
The office has roughly 120 employees, or a little more than a quarter of the insurance department’s 435-member work force. It oversees the training of fire and rescue personnel, administers the state building code and reviews construction plans for state buildings.