By Keith Eddings
---- — LAWRENCE – A firefighter who asked to be reassigned to dispatch when his asthma worsened was instead fired last week after a hearing officer determined he suffered from the respiratory disease for at least eight years before joining the Fire Department in 2004.
Firefighter Tim Atwood on Tuesday became the second city employee fired by Mayor William Lantigua since Thanksgiving over issues involving disability
On Nov. 26, Lantigua fired public works laborer Tom Sapienza for ignoring an order to return from the unpaid leave he took five months earlier to care for his dying wife. Former State Rep. Jose Santiago was given a laborer’s job in the public works department the same day.
For Atwood, last week’s pink slip came 10 months after he went on sick and vacation leave from his post on a ladder truck at the South Broadway firehouse on the advice of his pulmonologist, saying the fumes he inhaled fighting fires and from the diesel trucks inside the firehouse had caused his asthma to relapse and left him unable even to suit up for fires without wheezing.
In March, three months into his leave, the city’s retirement board rejected Atwood’s request for involuntary retirement after discovering that the federal Veteran’s Administration classified him as a “disabled veteran” because of his asthma after his military service ended in 1996, allowing the board to rule that his condition was not related to his job. Involuntary retirement would have provided Atwood, 49, with 72 percent of his $70,000 annual salary and health benefits for the rest of his life.
“They said, ‘Are you a disabled veteran?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ Atwood said about the questions from the board. “They said, ‘We need your veteran’s medical records.’ When they pulled them, of course the asthma is on there. I showed them my pre-employment physical. I said, ‘You guys knew I was a disabled vet.’”
Although Atwood used his status as a disabled veteran to bump up in the hiring line when he applied for the firefighter’s job in 2004, he said the city never asked him for details about the disability. He said his asthma had abated enough by then that he was able to pass the pre-employment physical, make it through weeks of boot-camp style training at the state Fire Academy and fight fires for seven years.
His luck ran out Jan. 11, when he said the fumes inside the South Broadway station left him barely able to breathe. The next day, pulmonologist David Christiani advised him not to return to work and sent a handwritten note to Fire Chief Jack Bergeron informing him of Atwood’s “work-related condition” and asking that he be taken off active duty.
In July, after the retirement board rejected a second request for involuntary retirement, a Civil Service hearing officer named by Lantigua heard the first of two hearings on a grievance filed by the Lawrence firefighters union seeking to have Atwood reassigned to a dispatching position that would have allowed him to retain his status as a firefighter.
A procedural foul-up caused Charla Bizios Stevens to schedule a second hearing on the issue on Nov. 28, when she denied the grievance. Lantigua fired Atwood two weeks later.
In the meantime, Atwood rejected a tentative offer from Chief Bergeron to rehire him as a civilian dispatcher, which would pay him significantly less than the $70,000 he earned as a firefighter.
The union is appealing Stevens’ decision, armed with a recent opinion by Christiani, the pulmonologist, reasserting that Atwood’s asthma is work-related. Atwood also has filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging the city illegally discriminated against him because of his disability.
“Mr. Atwood’s asthma was hastened, aggravated and exacerbated to the point of disability as a result of occupational exposure to gas, dust, vapors and fumes, particles and other materials as an active firefighter,” Christiani wrote. “He is now disabled from his work as a firefighter because of this and this disability is permanent.”
One of the most dangerous incidents Atwood responded to occurred on May 9, 2008, when a railroad tanker car carrying 250,000 pounds of sodium chlorate derailed near an Andover Street crossing, releasing clouds of its contents. The chemical becomes hot and explosive when it comes in contact with wood, paper or other combustible materials.
“It’s crazy - when someone is disciplined, they get put on paid administrative leave,” Atwood said, referring to city employees Lantigua has sent home but has kept on the payroll following their criminal indictments, including Deputy Police Chief Melix Bonilla. “When someone gets injured on the job, they put you out. You lose your sick and vacation time, and when that runs out, you don’t have anything.”
Lantigua declined to comment for this story.
Atwood has been collecting unemployment since his sick and vacation time ran out Aug. 26. He and his wife, who also is out of work with a disability, and their three children – a 20- and 12-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl - are now insured by Mass Health.
Even as the family income shrinks to a few hundred dollars a week, the Gilbert Street home they share is ready for Chirstmas. A tree sparkled in a corner on a recent evening, a few poinsettias brightened the kitchen and living room, and bulbs and other ornaments hung in the windows beside blinking white lights.
“I try to be the strong one, as the wife, to support my husband and children,” Atwood’s wife, Dawn, said about her effort to brighten the house. “I can tell you, it’s very, very hard. We have to keep our spirits high, especially at this time of year.”