This is the story of a fired firefighter.
Mike Mardis will tell you his termination is justified. He says so from the Center of Excellence, a Maryland treatment facility for firefighters struggling with trauma and addiction.
Mardis is in the middle of a six-month stint at the center.
He’s glad to be there. He wants other firefighters to know it’s a good place to get help.
Most of all, he wants department administrators to do a better job of identifying firefighters who need a hand, and giving them one.
“My career is finished,” said Mardis, 52, a U.S. Army veteran and Stamford firefighter for more than 23 years. “My concern is the firefighters who are hurting on the job right now.”
They shouldn’t be left to do what he did, he said. In January 2022 he was found to be drunk on the job. About 10 months later he tested above the legal blood-alcohol limit after driving a fire crew to two calls.
His alcoholism was spiraling, Mardis said.
Fear of dreams
“I wasn’t at a bar until three in the morning then showing up for work a few hours later,” he said. “I was afraid to go to sleep, so I would drink to pass out at night because I knew the dreams were going to come.”
Mardis “had problems on and off” for a few years, said Paul Anderson, president of the Stamford Professional Fire Fighters Association, Local 786.
“He was not drinking at work,” Anderson said. “He was drinking off-shift but he was drinking so much that he was coming to work drunk.”
Mardis’s behavior warrants termination, Anderson said. But the way he was fired speaks to a problem in the Stamford Fire Department, he said.
Fire Chief Trevor Roach fired Mardis while he was in treatment, Anderson said.
“The chief used his city email to notify (Mardis) and then shut down (Mardis’s) email. The guy didn’t know he was fired because he was in Maryland and his email was cut off,” Anderson said. “He admits what he did, knows he has a problem, and he’s getting help for it. He has almost 25 years on the job. He’s a veteran. But the chief just cut him off.”
At the time Roach did that, the union was working with the city’s Human Resources Department on a separation agreement, Anderson said. The union wanted Roach to allow Mardis to complete treatment and “retire with dignity,” Anderson said.
When that didn’t happen, the union filed a grievance and asked the Firefighters Pension Board to allow Mardis to retire with a disability pension, Anderson said.
This week the pension board – made up of two trustees appointed by the mayor, two appointed by union, and an independent member selected by the trustees – agreed.
Anderson said he learned during the pension board discussion that Mardis has serious post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I didn’t know the extent of it. He has a well-documented disability claim with the Veterans Administration,” Anderson said. “He kept it to himself.”
Mardis is one in a long line of firefighters with military backgrounds, Anderson said. The Stamford Fire Department “has employed veterans for generations. In fact, veterans are given preference through the civil service hiring process, as an acknowledgment of their sacrifices,” Anderson said.
“Unfortunately, traumatic experiences are a part of being a veteran and a professional firefighter,” he said.
Alcohol and drugs, according to the Center of Excellence website, are commonly used to escape the symptoms of PTSD. Firefighters, along with paramedics, are regularly exposed to traumatic situations and “are twice as likely as the general population to experience PTSD,” according to the website. The treatment center, designed for firefighters then expanded to include paramedics, focuses on PTSD therapies.
It’s hugely important, Mardis said.
“We unfortunately see things most people don’t have to,” he said. “I know firefighters are burying it, not stepping forward to talk about it or admit it bothers them – until it’s too late. That’s what I did.”
He’s learned that his problems began on a day more than 30 years ago, when he was a 19-year-old soldier in a unit that was returning from a rehearsal for a change-of-command ceremony.
A soldier in his mid-20s appeared, found his lieutenant, and shot him, Mardis said.
“Then he started popping rounds off at us. They were coming at my head so I went behind a tree,” Mardis said. Suddenly the soldier “put the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. I watched his head fly in the air.”
Leaders ‘should have seen’
Mardis found out the shooter was a sergeant who had been having marital problems; his wife kicked him out of their house on base. The sergeant got caught sleeping in his truck, and officers assumed he was collecting money for living quarters, pocketing it and living in his truck. They accused him of fraud and demoted him.
“So he went out and bought civilian ammo, loaded up a magazine, and shot his lieutenant,” Mardis said. “It was a failure of leadership. They should have seen what was happening with him. Someone should have gone to him and said, ‘Let’s get you set up.’”
A few months later, when he was 20, Mardis was leading a team at Schofield Barracks, an Army base in Hawaii. One evening he and a soldier on his team, William Canady, were standing outside the Paradise Club for enlisted men.
A 19-year-old and some friends he’d been drinking with approached Canady and stabbed him in the chest.
“I didn’t see it happen,” Mardis said. “Willie fell on me.”
The teen, who stabbed another soldier before he fled, later said he thought one of them had accosted his sister. The second soldier survived but Canady died.
“He was one of my guys. I was his team leader. I swore to protect him,” Mardis said. “In the military, when you get into a leadership position, you are responsible for the guy’s pay, for his financial problems, his marital problems and health problems. You are the front line for getting him fixed. I feel like I failed him. I’ve spent my entire life trying to make up for that night.”
After leaving the military he at first thought he would become a police officer, but then decided on the life-rescuing fire service, Mardis said.
Despite firefighter efforts, not all lives are saved, and traumas add up.
On a Sunday morning in 2003, Mardis was among the first responders to answer a call about a submerged car at Cummings beach. Mardis said he arrived to see the trunk sticking out of the water. He and a police officer swam out and found a woman behind the wheel, but she was dead in the 40-degree water. She had committed suicide.
“It took two divers to get her out,” he said.
He responded to another call about a fatality on Interstate 95. His wife, Andrea Mardis, said that one sticks in her mind.
“A young Black gentleman was struck by a vehicle and died at the scene,” she said. “My husband said, ‘He looked just like Willie.’ For him, it was that murder all over again.”
Mike Mardis remembers it this way: “I knew then that I was in trouble.”
Then came the incident that traumatized the entire Stamford Fire Department.
In the early darkness of Dec. 25, 2011, a newly renovated Victorian home on Shippan Point burned, killing Madonna Badger’s three children, Lily, 9, and 7-year-old twins Grace and Sarah, and her parents, Pauline and Lomer Johnson.
Mardis said he worked that Christmas Eve to make a little extra money, hoping to get home before his own two daughters awoke.
“I wanted to see them open presents,” he said.
Instead, he searched for bodies in the wreckage of 2267 Shippan Ave.
Care for each other
Mike Mardis said he’s concerned that departments don’t spend enough time preparing firefighters for what they will experience during and after such situations. PTSD is sneaky, and terribly damaging, he said.
The smallest things bring back the tragedy of his Army friend’s murder, Mardis said.
“Floral smells because it was in Hawaii. A slight chill in the air will do it sometimes. The sight of a young Black man wearing a white T-shirt like Willie was wearing that night. When I go on calls and see people having difficulty breathing,” he said.
In the last year, department leadership focused on entrapping him instead of helping him, Mardis said. He reached out to the city’s Human Resources Department and got nowhere, he said.
As in the case of the young sergeant found sleeping in his car, leadership fell short, Mardis said.
“We should be taking care of our family, which is what we are supposed to be as a fire department,” he said. “I had to come to a place like this to be in that kind of fire department, where so much caring goes on.”
Roach and Lauren Meyer, director of policy and legislative affairs for Mayor Caroline Simmons, were asked whether a city employee can be fired while in treatment for substance abuse, and whether Roach should have let Human Resources handle the termination.
“As this is an ongoing personnel matter, we do not have a comment at this time,” Meyer replied.
Roach did not respond.
“This isn’t how you treat people,” Anderson said. “We’re all one call away from this kind of trouble.”