After the suspected overdose death of an off-duty city firefighter in January, New Britain suspended seven firefighters and fired another in connection with an apparent ring that used drugs at various firehouses, city officials said.
In addition, nearly a half-dozen firefighters filed retirement papers while a months-long internal investigation was underway.
And just weeks ago, commanders conducted a large-scale staff transfer between New Britain’s eight firehouses to break up cliques of troubled employees, Mayor Erin Stewart said Monday.
Acknowledging the revelations as “a black eye” for the 129-member department, Fire Chief Rafael Ortiz said discipline is 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’ve taken swift action and we’ve held those individuals accountable.”
Stewart, who has been consulting with city lawyers for months as the circle of trouble widened, publicly spoke Monday about the case for the first time.
“The majority of our staff come in to work every day, do well, protect our citizens and do it because they love this job and take it seriously,” Stewart told the Courant.
“They’re embarrassed — and so am I — that we have to even come forth and talk about what you and I would perceive to be common sense: To not do drugs at work or be under the influence at work,” she said.
Rumors of drug use in the fire department started circulating soon after Firefighter Matthew Dizney, 36, was found dead at his Southington home on Jan. 26.
Southington police have been investigating it as a suspicious death; the medical examiner is still awaiting results of toxicology tests, but New Britain officials say it was an apparent drug overdose.
Among the evidence investigators reportedly found was Dizney’s phone, which had a record of his text messages back and forth with Lt. Michael Yagmin, city officials said. They repeatedly referred to a “stack” and a “bun,” which New Britain police identified as street terms for various quantities of drugs.
In one exchange, Yagmin appears to offer Adderall pills to Dizney, city officials said. New Britain police determined there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Yagmin criminally, but city officials fired him after concluding that he lied at an administrative hearing.
“You were knowingly supplying, giving, selling, sharing and using illegal drugs and your prescription Adderall pills with a private in the fire department” and delivered drugs to Dizney while he was on duty, according to Stewart’s Feb. 18 letter of termination to Yagmin.
Yagmin was accused of commission of a criminal or immoral act, conduct unbecoming of a city employee and untruthfulness at a Garrity Act hearing, according to city officials.
Yagmin denied any drug use or misconduct, and is appealing the dismissal, a union official said. The state labor board 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 issued 30-day unpaid suspensions to seven other senior firefighters. All were either lieutenants, a supervisory rank, or drivers, an upper-seniority assignment.
To keep their jobs, they all admitted to violating the city’s code of conduct. They accepted demotions to private as well as three-year probation periods where 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 also signed off on accepting random drug testing at any time during that probation.
Stewart said they were part of a loosely aligned group of firefighters, several of whom admitted to being at work under the influence of drugs. 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 that each of them told somewhat of their truth. The one that completely lies about everything is the one who was let go,” she said.
“The individuals who are being brought back are remorseful, they understand the severity of their actions and they’re getting the help they need,” Ortiz said. “There’s a path to redemption for those individuals.”
Ken Keough, president of Local 992, the city firefighters union, said it was good that the seven firefighters can save their careers.
“We’ve had issues where certain individuals had trouble with drug issues and they’ve had a chance to reform,” said “Many of them are still seeking out help and I think that’s a good thing.”
Ortiz said he and the mayor’s office have worked to establish a drug-testing policy since he was hired four years ago. Negotiations with the union stalled during the pandemic, but have resumed.
“Everybody has been working in good faith. I believe we’re very close to coming to terms,” Keough said. “We’re getting there, unfortunately it’s not happening overnight.”
Stewart was pointedly less optimistic, saying that union has stalled progress for too long — and even after the death of one of its members.
“As of today, the fire union has still failed to agree to a drug-testing policy,” she said. “It boggles my mind why the union has failed to coordinate with the city to put forth a policy that is going to ensure the safety of our citizens and the safety of the firefighting men and women of our department.
“Obviously there have been things going on here for years that nobody opened their mouths about. The unfortunate reality is it took firefighter Matt Dizney’s death to highlight it,” she said. “If I would have known, I have the tools at my disposal to have been able to help him and others that need it.”