Fla. city firefighters say nepotism played role in selecting new recruits

Of the 21 recruits ultimately selected for fire department training, six are related to current employees

Kyra Gurney
Miami Herald

Firefighters in Miami Beach are concerned that nepotism played a role in selecting this year’s recruit class, creating an unfair hiring process and possible safety risks, according to three current firefighters who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

More than 500 people applied for coveted positions with the Miami Beach Fire Department last fall and 124 made it past the written exam and physical agility test to the interview round. Of the 21 recruits ultimately selected for fire department training, which ends on May 10, six are related to current employees including Chief Virgil Fernandez, two division chiefs, a lieutenant and the local union president.

“It’s not fair,” said one Miami Beach firefighter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals. Picking people with family connections to fill fire department jobs prevents other qualified applicants from getting hired, he said.

“It boils down to a safety issue,” said another Beach firefighter, who said he worries that the fire department will “push people through who are connected” even if they don’t meet training standards.

The Miami Beach Fire Department said that it does not take family connections into consideration when selecting recruits and that everyone who is hired by the department has to meet rigorous standards including successfully completing a training course. Two of the recruits with family ties had experience working for other fire departments.

“There is no merit to having any family ties,” said Deputy Fire Chief Miguel Anchia, who oversaw the hiring process. Fernandez recused himself from the process because his nephew applied, Anchia said.

This year’s recruits include Fernandez’s nephew Paul Fernandez; local fire union president and Capt. Adonis Garcia’s nephew Blake Garcia; Division Chief Robert Bedell’s son Mason Bedell; Division Chief Jesus Sola’s son Tyler Sola and Lt. David Sola’s cousin Daniel Curbelo. Another recruit, Brianni Barroso, is the daughter of Betty Fabricio, a fire protection analyst, but was terminated from the training program, Anchia said.

The recruits will begin working as full-time firefighters on May 13 with a starting salary of roughly $51,000, according to the city’s 2018 job posting.

Anchia stressed that the first two steps in the application process — the written exam and the physical agility test — are overseen by another organization. The final steps in the process, an interview with a panel of Miami Beach firefighters and a final interview with Anchia, are overseen by the fire department, however. Miami Beach did not respond to a request for the names of the firefighters on the panel.

The interview panel narrowed the list of applicants who passed the written and physical fitness tests down to 50, Anchia said, and then the deputy fire chief made the final recommendations to the city’s human resources department, which conducts background checks. Anchia said that applicants are required to disclose any family ties during the application process.

Miami Beach did not respond to an email asking if the officials related to recruits wanted to comment. Five of the six recruits with family connections either did not respond to requests for comment or could not be reached. Barroso declined to comment.

Fire Division Chief Digna Abello, who oversees training, said that regardless of whether new recruits are related to someone in the department, they have to successfully complete a rigorous training program. All applicants were required to complete the state certification for firefighters, which requires taking college-level classes, before applying to the fire department.

“It doesn’t matter who you are or who you know or anything like that, you still have to meet the minimum standards of the Recruit Academy,” Abello said.

The Herald requested copies of performance evaluations on Monday, but had not received them by the end of the week and was unable to independently verify that all of the recruits have met training standards.

One recruit, Division Chief Jesus Sola’s son Tyler, had previously applied to work for the Coral Gables Fire Department, but resigned from that city’s training academy last July because he was “unable to meet the physical requirements needed to succeed,” according to records obtained from the city of Coral Gables.

Sola and another recruit, Paul Fernandez, had previously applied to join the Miami Beach Fire Department, but were not selected, Anchia said.

Other recruits left successful positions at other departments to join Miami Beach Fire, according to Anchia. Daniel Curbelo resigned a position as a firefighter in Miami and Nicolas Costa resigned a recruit position in Coral Gables, Anchia said.

But for one applicant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, previous experience as a firefighter wasn’t enough to get him a job in Miami Beach. He first applied in 2016 and tried again in 2018, at which point he was already working for another fire department. The applicant passed the written and physical tests, according to documents he provided to the Herald, but didn’t make it to the final interview round. He said his impression was that applicants needed a family connection to get hired.

“I probably wouldn’t apply again because I felt like I was wasting my time,” he said. “I would do really well in the process and then I would just have no chance to get selected.”

Not every applicant with family connections was offered a job, however. Anchia said his godson applied, but didn’t make the cut. Kevin Meizoso, who is related to Fire Division Chief Juan Meizoso, took the written exam in September, city spokeswoman Melissa Berthier said in an email, but didn’t make it to the next round. Kevin Meizoso was one of six city of Miami firefighters fired in 2017 after a black colleague found lewd images drawn on his family photos and a noose in his fire station dorm room.

Allegations of nepotism have sparked controversy at other fire departments as well. The mayor of Los Angeles temporarily suspended that city’s firefighter recruitment program in 2014 amid allegations of mismanagement and nepotism. Nearly a quarter of the recruits hired by the Los Angeles Fire Department that year were related to department employees, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Jack Garcia, a retired Miami-Dade firefighter, said that it’s not unusual to see members of the same family within a fire department.

“The reason there’s a disproportionate number of family members getting hired is because that’s the family business,” Garcia said. “I’m not saying that there’s not any room for wrongdoing,” he added, “but for the most part it’s not surprising to me that firefighters’ family members get in because from a young age that’s what they’ve been focused on.”

In a statement, City Manager Jimmy Morales said that he stood by the hiring process. “The legacy of family members in the fire department runs proudly through not only the Miami Beach team, but departments around the world,” Morales said. “To be a firefighter, you must have an understanding of the life and a willingness and desire to live it.”

Morales said that the city had not received any complaints about the hiring process. The firefighters who spoke to the Herald said they were afraid to complain to city officials because they feared retribution.

It’s unclear whether the fire department has a nepotism policy. Miami Beach did not respond to a question about whether such a policy exists or how the city will ensure that recruits are not supervised by family members. A 2014 document listing Miami Beach personnel rules, which is posted online, says that family members can’t hold positions in the same division within the same city department “where one evaluates or supervises the other.”

Commissioner Ricky Arriola said that he doesn’t have a problem with nepotism in the fire department as long as recruits meet all of the city’s standards. “I think it’s a positive thing to know where these people come from,” he said, as opposed to hiring “a bunch of guys we don’t know” who might be less likely to stick with the fire department long-term.

Current and former Beach firefighters who spoke to the Herald said that they’re concerned the recruitment process in Miami Beach this year was unfair, however.

“Everybody has a sense of justice and this doesn’t meet that test,” said one retired Beach firefighter who said he’d heard from several current firefighters about the nepotism concerns.

One current firefighter said that getting a job with any fire department is a challenge.

“Anybody trying to get a job in the service, it’s very difficult and obviously any kind of help you can get would be great, but it’s not necessarily fair,” he said.

The firefighter added that he and his colleagues weren’t trying to make their employer look bad by sharing their concerns.

“We just want this to be the best department it can be and we want to make sure it’s the most fair process for anybody who comes from anywhere in the country,” he said.


©2019 Miami Herald

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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