Noah Fouad was a New Canaan kid who’d just graduated a private high school in Stamford when he discovered the thing he wanted to do most in life.
At the suggestion of a buddy, he filled out an application to become a volunteer firefighter when he turned 18, the minimum age.
The New Canaan firehouse immediately felt like home, Fouad said.
“I loved it right away,” he said. “I knew it was for me.”
Fouad now is 31 and a career firefighter in Wilton, not New Canaan, where he volunteered for six years, including in between college semesters, and learned the ropes from some good firefighters who are friends to this day.
Fouad didn’t get a job with the New Canaan Fire Department even though he’d been through volunteer training, earned his certification from the Connecticut Fire Academy – paying the $7,000 fee himself – and passed the New Canaan test twice.
“I put myself through the academy hoping to get a job in New Canaan,” said Fouad, a Boston native whose family moved to New Canaan when he was 8. “Usually the department pays for the academy, but there were no openings at the time, and I knew departments see it as a big plus if you’re trained and certified when you’re looking to get hired.”
He doesn’t know whether he wasn’t hired because he’s Black, Fouad said. He did not have bad experiences coming of age in New Canaan.
“It’s a nice place to grow up,” he said. “It’s safe. We had a big backyard. Are there things I wish were different? Yes. But I went to a good school and didn’t have any issues.”
That was true until, after college, he tried to get a job in the place he loved, the New Canaan Fire Department, a hybrid system of volunteer and paid firefighters.
On his first try, he was one of eight people taking the test to become a paid firefighter, Fouad said. He was one of two who passed.
“Then they said not enough people had passed it, so they were going to score it on a curve,” he said. “A third guy passed on the curve. They picked him even though he had the lowest score.”
The second time he took the firefighter’s test, the department did not release the scores.
“So I don’t know how I did,” Fouad said.
During the testing, he remained a volunteer. Three of the four shifts in the firehouse supported him, Fouad said.
“After it became clear that I would take the test, I saw that one group did not want me to get hired,” he said. “They were very careful to not say anything offensive in front of me, but I knew I was not welcome.”
He began taking firefighter’s tests in other towns, and soon was hired in Wilton.
Then, in 2020, Fouad learned of something that validated his feeling of being unwelcome.
A paid New Canaan Fire Department veteran named John Aniello, who’d been a friend to Fouad while he was a volunteer, filed a civil lawsuit against the town, charging nine counts that included discriminatory practices, hostile work environment, negligent supervision of employees, and retaliation in violation of the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Employment Practices Act.
Aniello, who is white, alleged that he was harassed in part because he called out racial bigotry, according to the lawsuit.
It states multiple times that Aniello “was subject to a hostile work environment, disparate treatment and other discriminatory conduct … because of his association with persons of another race.”
In one instance, someone wrote “I love n******” on Aniello’s vehicle while it was parked in the New Canaan Fire Department lot, according to the suit. It was written on the passenger side so Aniello would not see it when he got in the vehicle and drove around town.
A captain in the department repeatedly called Aniello “Kunta Kinte” and “Toby,” references to the African slave who was the central character in the television series “Roots,” according to the suit.
Someone placed a sexually offensive, racially charged sticker on Aniello’s firehouse locker, the lawsuit states.
When Aniello reported the incidents to a captain, the chief, the town’s human resources director, the Employee Assistance Program, the fire commissioner, the former and the current first selectmen, the retaliation worsened, according to the suit.
Someone stuffed garbage in the toes of his boots, delaying his response to a fire call, it states. Aniello was deprived of opportunities to take part in training exercises and classes, and to take on additional tasks as an acting lieutenant, according to the suit. He was denied overtime work, and information he needed to perform daily tasks; his work performance was held to a different standard; and his shift duties were switched at random, it alleges.
No one in a position of authority acted to end the abuse, the court document states. Last year the Town of New Canaan settled the suit, and Aniello left the fire department.
His attorney, Michael Lynch of Lynch Law Group, wrote in an email that there’s nothing left to say.
“The Aniello matter is resolved and I offer no further comment,” Lynch wrote.
The talk in firefighting circles is that Aniello presented ample evidence to support his allegations, and the town settled the suit for a substantial amount.
The settlement amount is public information, said Tom Hennick, public education officer for the state Freedom of Information Commission.
“It should be public,” Hennick said. “We’ve had a couple of cases like this where we have ordered release of settlement amounts.”
But New Canaan First Selectman Kevin Moynihan said the town does “not comment on litigation matters in the press.”
Asked whether the town acknowledges the behavior alleged in the lawsuit, and whether anyone has been disciplined, Moynihan said “we continue to enforce all of our workplace policies, including but not limited to our anti-discrimination and bullying polices, and we continue to provide training to our employees regarding those policies.”
Fouad said the small number of people who perpetuated, or protected, wrongful behavior still hold positions of authority in the New Canaan Fire Department.
“That’s not acceptable,” Fouad said. “John Aniello’s experience took years off his life. He reached out to people in authority for help and he didn’t get it. I feel like he carried the torch for a long time. Someone has to take it up and keep trying to do the right thing. That’s why I’m speaking out.”
Fouad said he believes that “the average person in New Canaan would not be good with this if they knew. I hope people will be concerned about it.”
It was Aniello, not he, who paid the price, Fouad said.
“I got my dream job in Wilton. I wound up doing just fine,” he said. “They didn’t allow me to work where I wanted, but I ended up being better off for it. John Aniello went through far, far worse.”