Lawsuits, Loss of Leadership, Stalled Contract Talks Leave Stamford Fire Fighters in Limbo

Credit: CT Examiner


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STAMFORD – On Oct. 2, Fire Chief Trevor Roach will retire.

It follows the July retirement of Chief Fire Marshal Walter Seely.

The union, called the Stamford Professional Fire Fighters Association, is operating on a contract that expired more than four years ago. 

Lawsuits against the city, filed by the union or individual firefighters, are pending. 

In one suit, a former fire marshal charges that his supervisor attempted to engage him in a fistfight. After the incident, the marshal, who is Black, was fired but the supervisor, who is White, was not disciplined, according to the lawsuit.

In another lawsuit, set for trial in December, the union is suing the Firefighters’ Pension Trust Fund Board of Trustees, the city, Roach, and Assistant Chief Miguel Robles, alleging that Roach and Robles are improperly collecting their chiefs’ contract salaries and their pensions at the same time. The union also alleges that some benefits Roach and Robles collect are calculated at the higher pay rates of their top posts, in violation of the union agreement.

Union feelings were inflamed in January, when Roach fired 23-year firefighter and U.S. Army veteran Michael Mardis while Mardis was a patient in a facility that treats first responders for trauma and substance abuse. Mardis is considered disabled by the Veterans Administration because of trauma stemming from his Army service. Mardis has acknowledged that he was showing up for work drunk, even as he sought treatment for his addiction.

After Mardis was fired, the city cut off medical insurance for his wife and children, even though the pension board had already granted him disability retirement benefits that include the insurance. The city reversed itself and reinstated family benefits in March.

Last year, after a lawsuit that had dragged on for four years, the city settled with four firefighters who alleged that they were improperly passed over for promotions when city and fire department officials ignored carefully calculated test scores and used their own criteria to fill higher ranks.

In the end, the city agreed to pay the four firefighters a total of $250,000; three of them were promoted; and the city was left with a legal bill of more than $880,000.

In June 2022, the union voted to declare no confidence in Roach and Robles, charging that they improperly handed promotions; collected their pensions and salaries simultaneously; collected pensions at higher rates than they’re due; fired the former union president after he questioned their pensions; improperly responded to a partial building collapse; and other allegations.

Two months later, the International Association of Fire Fighters voted during its annual convention in Canada to censure Roach and Robles, citing the same alleged offenses. Roach has said the allegations “are simply untrue.”

Last month, firefighter Jonathan Cunningham came forward to say that the city has sued his union to try to reverse a decision by an independent state arbitrator who ruled that Cunningham qualifies for worker’s compensation benefits.

Cunningham is battling multiple myeloma, an incurable cancer of the blood plasma that is one of a group of illnesses associated with firefighting. 

The city is refusing to pay Cunningham’s worker’s compensation claim even though the union contract states that “any respiratory disease, heart disease, hypertension or cancer resulting in total or partial disability to an employee shall be presumed to have been suffered” in the line of duty.

Moreover, in June the Connecticut legislature passed a law requiring that firefighters with certain cancers receive workers’ compensation benefits and disability retirement benefits. The law takes effect Oct. 1 but applies only to cases dating to Oct. 1, 2020. Cunningham was diagnosed 16 days before that date, so the law does not cover him.

State and national firefighter union officials have told CT Examiner they are watching Cunningham’s case because it is a rare challenge of binding arbitration. A binding arbitration award is “the culmination of good-faith negotiations between the union and the city government,” union officials have said, and “for the city to not abide by it is egregious.” 

Jay Colbert, vice president of the International Association of Fire Fighters District 3, which represents six New England states, has said his organization feels so strongly about Cunningham’s case that it will help the Stamford union pay its legal fees.

It’s one thing that the city is not honoring the arbitration award, Colbert said last month, but it’s “despicable” that the case involves cancer, an “epidemic” among firefighters and “our No. 1 fight in the 21st century.”

Lauren Meyer, special assistant to Mayor Caroline Simmons, has said the decision to appeal Cunningham’s arbitration award was made by the city law department “in the best interest of Stamford taxpayers.”

Paul Anderson, president of the Stamford Professional Fire Fighters Association, Local 786 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said Friday that, of all the union’s problems with the city, Cunningham’s case is the hardest to take.

“You don’t get to overturn an arbitration decision and deny coverage for a guy struggling with cancer,” Anderson said. 

The union, which endorsed Simmons when she ran for mayor two years ago, is concerned about the turmoil of the last few years, and watching with concern as her administration seeks to fill the top spots in the fire department, Anderson said. 

“If they are even considering Robles for the chief’s position, that’s a major issue,” he said.

Meyer said in an email that Assistant Fire Marshal Chad Armstrong is serving as interim chief fire marshal now that Seely is gone. 

As for the top spot in the department, the administration will announce an interim fire chief  “in the coming weeks,” Meyer said. 

She didn’t say anything about the status of searches to fill the posts permanently.

“The administration’s primary concern is to appoint an interim chief fire marshal and fire chief for continuity of operations within the Stamford Fire Department,” Meyer said. 

Contract negotiations with the firefighters’ union “are ongoing,” she said.

Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.