Following the alleged death in January of an off-duty city firefighter from an overdose, New Britain suspended seven firefighters and fired another in connection with an apparent ring involving the use of drugs at different fire stations, city officials said.
Additionally, nearly half a dozen firefighters filed annuity papers while a months-long internal investigation was ongoing.
And just weeks ago, commanders conducted a large-scale transfer of personnel between New Britain’s eight fire stations to break up cliques of troubled staff, Mayor Erin Stewart said Monday.
Fire Chief Rafael Ortiz acknowledged the revelations as “a black eye” for the 129-strong department and said discipline was being mixed with rehabilitation for the offenders.
“We have to address these issues so they don’t fester,” Ortiz said. “We take providing a drug-free workplace very seriously. We acted quickly and held these individuals accountable.”
Stewart, who had been consulting with city attorneys for months as the troubles widened, spoke publicly about the case for the first time Monday.
“The majority of our employees come to work every day, do a good job, protect our citizens and do it because they love their job and take it seriously,” Stewart told the Courant.
“You’re embarrassed — and so am I — that we even need to step up and talk about what you and I would consider common sense: not using drugs at work or being under the influence at work,” she said.
Shortly after firefighter Matthew Dizney, 36, was found dead at his home in Southington on January 26, rumors of drug use in the fire service began to circulate.
Southington Police have investigated it as a suspicious death; the coroner is still awaiting the results of toxicology tests, but New Britain officials say it was an apparent drug overdose.
Among the evidence reportedly found was Dizney’s phone, where his text messages with Lt. Michael Yagmin were recorded, city officials said. They repeatedly referred to a “pile” and a “bun,” which New Britain Police identified as street terms for various amounts of drugs.
In an exchange, Yagmin appears to be offering Dizney Adderall pills, city officials said. New Britain Police found there was insufficient evidence to criminally charge Yagmin, but city officials fired him after concluding that he lied at an administrative hearing.
“You knowingly supplied, gave, sold, shared and used illegal drugs and your prescription Adderall pills with a private in the fire department” and supplied drugs to Dizney while he was on duty, according to Stewart’s February 18 resignation letter to Yagmin.
According to city officials, Yagmin was charged with committing a criminal or immoral act, improper conduct by a city employee and lying at a Garrity Act hearing.
Yagmin denied any drug use or wrongdoing and appealed the sacking, a union official said. The State Chamber of Labor is expected to hear the case next month or in July. Yagmin could not be reached for comment.
Between mid-March and early April, the city suspended seven other senior firefighters for 30 days without pay. All were either lieutenants, a supervisory rank, or drivers, a seniority rank.
In order to keep their jobs, they all admitted to violating the city’s code of conduct. They accepted demotions to private and three-year probationary periods during which they cannot seek promotion.
They also agreed to go to some form of drug counseling or rehabilitation, officials said. And as part of their “Last Chance” agreements, they’ve also agreed to accept random drug tests at any time during this probationary period.
Stewart said they were among a loosely knit group of firefighters, several of whom admitted to being under the influence of drugs at work. Adderall was a particularly popular drug for the group, but there was also evidence of less frequent heroin or marijuana use, she said.
“The reason these guys weren’t fired is because each of them spoke some of their truth. The one who lies about everything is the one who was let go,” she said.
“The individuals who are being brought back are repentant, they understand the seriousness of their actions, and they are getting the help they need,” Ortiz said. “For these individuals there is a way to salvation.”
Five things you need to know
We provide the latest Connecticut coronavirus coverage every weekday morning.
Ken Keough, president of Local 992, the city’s firefighters’ union, said it’s good that the seven firefighters could save their careers.
“We’ve had issues where certain individuals have had issues with drug issues and they’ve had a chance to reform,” said “A lot of them are still looking for help, and I think that’s a good thing.”
Ortiz said he and the mayor’s office have been working to establish a drug testing policy since he was hired four years ago. Negotiations with the union have stalled during the pandemic but have resumed.
“Everyone worked in good faith. I think we’re close to an agreement,” Keough said. “We’re getting there, unfortunately it doesn’t happen overnight.”
Stewart was far less optimistic, saying the union had stalled progress for too long – and even after the death of one of its members.
“To date, the firefighters’ union has still not agreed to a drug testing policy,” she said. “It is beyond me why the union failed to coordinate with the city to establish a policy that will ensure the safety of our citizens and the safety of our department’s firefighters.
“Obviously things have been happening here for years that nobody has opened their mouths about. The unfortunate reality is that the death of firefighter Matt Dizney was needed to highlight that,” she said. “If I had known, I would have had the tools to help him and others who need it.”