All in the family: Braintree Fire Department hires stoke nepotism concerns

The NBC10 Investigators have heard rumblings of nepotism in Braintree for several years, but the allegations of special treatment recently grew louder because of a hire involving the fire chief’s son, and what happened after his brush with the law

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For several years, allegations of nepotism have simmered within the Braintree Fire Department.

But accusations of special treatment grew louder in recent months because of a hire involving one of Fire Chief James O’Brien’s sons, and what happened after his brush with the law.



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“When the bells go off, we have no idea what we’re going to be facing. You want to be able to trust who you are working with,” said a ranking Braintree firefighter, who spoke with the NBC10 Investigators if we agreed to conceal their identity. “It’s demoralizing to see what’s happened with some of these hires.”

According to several people employed with the Braintree Fire Department, and to hiring lists obtained via public records requests, some hires since O’Brien took over as fire chief a decade ago had direct connections to officials at town hall or to the chief himself.

In 2019, one of the town’s four firefighters hired included O’Brien’s oldest son, James O’Brien Jr. The hiring list obtained by NBC10 shows O’Brien Jr. was ranked 58th out of 87 total candidates that year.

Rankings are determined by performance on a written exam. Preference is given to Braintree residents, with extra points awarded for things like military service or an EMT certification.

“If they want to get to a certain person, they will interview more people to get to the one they want,” the firefighter told us. “They seem to push the acceptable parameters of the hiring process.”

According to the town’s policy for fire department hires, up to 10 candidates can be selected for interviews for the first firefighter position opening. For each additional opening, up to five additional candidates can be interviewed from the list.

However, the policy states that at the discretion of the fire chief, more than 10 candidates can be interviewed for an open position.

In the most recent round of hires during the summer of 2022, one recruit—who scored 3rd on the list of candidates—was the fire chief’s future son-in-law.

O’Brien’s younger son, Tyler, also received one the five available positions and enlisted in the Boston Fire Department Academy with his fellow recruits. Passing the academy is a requirement prior to becoming an active-duty firefighter in Braintree.

Last October, while enlisted at the academy, court documents show Tyler O’Brien was arrested at Encore Casino and charged with trespassing.

“Encore casino managers advised us that [O’Brien] was trespassed earlier in the evening and was back again,” an Everett police report stated. “Tyler was placed into a cab on two different occasions, but kept getting out down the access road, and trying to re-enter the casino.”

According to a spokesperson with the Massachusetts Attorney General, which has jurisdiction over Encore Casino, O’Brien’s case was eventually dismissed because of his lack of a criminal record.

However, word of the arrest quickly made its way back to academy leaders at the Boston Fire Department.

Two days later, a memo obtained by NBC10 shows O’Brien was called into a deputy chief’s office and interviewed about the incident.

The majority of the details in the memo are redacted, but it concluded: “I informed Recruit O’Brien that he is dismissed from the Boston Fire Department Academy.”

Two days before the arrest, a separate memo indicates O’Brien was called in for separate a meeting with academy leaders, though the subject matter of that discussion was completely blacked out. Tyler O’Brien has not responded to a request for comment.

“If it were any other candidate, the chief and the town would be wise to let him go and move on to the next candidate,” the Braintree firefighter told us. “For no other reason than to protect themselves and the citizens from any liability if something else should happen.”

At first, emails we obtained via public records request suggested that would be the case.

“Can I give you Ty’s resignation letter tomorrow or Monday?” the fire chief wrote to the town’s human resources director on October 28.

However, sources told us Tyler O’Brien did not lose his opportunity to work for the department. Instead, they said his dad worked to get him into a different fire academy to complete his required training.

Sure enough, a December letter addressed to Chief O’Brien from the Massachusetts Firefighting Academy in Stow said his son would be starting as a recruit this past summer.

“It raises an eyebrow as to what exactly the process is in Braintree,” said Rich MacKinnon, the president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts.

MacKinnon said the situation in Braintree supports the need for the state’s civil service process.

“The intention of civil service is to make sure everything is fair, unbiased, and on a level playing field,” MacKinnon explained. “It also gives candidates the option to appeal if they think they’ve been unfairly bypassed or overlooked by a town.”

A growing number of communities, including Braintree, have opted out of the civil service process. MacKinnon said PFFM represents firefighters from 231 communities across Massachusetts. Of those, about 100 remain in civil service.

MacKinnon attributes the change to communities tiring of the bureaucratic red tape with the state agency, or because they want more flexibility in diversifying their ranks and recruiting female or candidates of color.

There are recent examples of nepotism infringing on a community’s firefighter hiring process.

Two years ago, the Wellesley fire chief admitted to violating the conflict of interest law and paid a $10,000 fine for interfering with the hiring process to favor his son.

MacKinnon would like to see a statewide standard for hiring and promotions implemented at fire departments across the state.

“Every city or town that’s not in civil service kind of does their own thing, which I don’t think is the right way to do it,” MacKinnon said. “If there’s nepotism, the impact on a department can be crushing to morale.”

When we contacted the Braintree fire chief to request an interview and address the nepotism allegations, we instead received a written response from Town Solicitor Crystal Huff.

Huff’s letter said O’Brien recused himself from the interview process in 2022 and 2019, when his sons were candidates under consideration.

Her response also said Tyler O’Brien is not currently employed as a firefighter and he did not attend the state fire academy.

Braintree Mayor Charles Kokoros, who has the final say on firefighter hires, has not responded to our questions about why and when that decision was made.

“The Braintree Fire Department follows all applicable laws, rules and regulations with respect to its hiring practices,” Huff’s letter concluded.

To the ranking firefighter who spoke with NBC10 about the situation in Braintree, the internal employment decisions can have a broader impact on the public.

“You have to have strong members and leaders responding to those incidents to make the best decisions as quickly as possible,” the firefighter said. “As a citizen, I want to have faith that when I call 911 for help, they’re going to know what they need to do.”

Ryan Kath can be reached at You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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