NEWARK, N.J. — The fatal overdose of a 49-year-old Newark fire captain inside his firehouse in January rattled the department and shocked those who knew him as a popular leader dedicated to his job and family.
The city called Capt. Carlos Rivera’s death at the Park Avenue firehouse on Jan. 15 an isolated incident. But NJ Advance Media has learned that the episode resulted in the transfer of 89 department members, including all 40 firefighters and captains assigned to Park Avenue, plus their replacements from Newark’s 15 other firehouses.
The head of the firefighters’ union and rank-and-file members described the department-wide shakeup as a blow to morale and operational cohesiveness that threatened public safety.
“Companies that train together — and stay together — work as a team,” said Chuck West, the Newark Firefighters Union’s president. “Cohesiveness is an important part of our firefighting, and to break that up was not a good idea.”
West said the union appealed the transfers to the New Jersey Civil Service Commission shortly after their Feb. 3 effective date, asserting they amounted to disciplinary action without specific or just cause.
But Public Safety Director Fritz Fragé labeled the transfers “routine” and rejected the assertion that firefighters’ lack of experience in different coverage areas or in working with new colleagues could slow response times or hinder their effectiveness.
“Newark Firefighters are detailed out to different parts of the City of Newark daily to conduct drills, to familiarize themselves with their [coverage] area, and to observe potential hazards,” read a statement from Fragé’s office. “In the nine months since the transfers occurred, we have had no reports from Newark Fire Division battalion chiefs or captains regarding any reduction in response times.”
The statement said Fragé was advised of Rivera’s death and others that occurred this year before his appointment.
It downplayed the nature and circumstances of Rivera’s overdose, characterizing it as “a tragic but isolated incident.”
But multiple sources who spoke on condition of anonymity said department leadership ordered the wholesale restaffing of the Park Avenue location because they recognized that drug use was common during Rivera’s tour. Rivera worked one of four 24-hour shifts, each made up of two captains and eight firefighters from Engine Company 15 and Ladder Company 7.
“We all knew what was happening there,” said one member of the department, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retribution. “It was like a frat party.”
An arrest in the case
On July 29, Acting Essex County Prosecutor Theodore N. Stephens II announced an arrest in Rivera’s death. He did not mention any other overdoses at the firehouse that Saturday eight months ago. But sources said a retired firefighter who was with Rivera at the time also overdosed and was hospitalized, though he survived.
The prosecutor’s office has charged a 42-year-old Kearny man, Eliasel Baez, with “distributing a controlled dangerous substance that caused the death of Rivera” and “distribution of CDS cocaine and distribution of CDS within 1,000 feet of a school.” It’s a reference to Dr. William H. Horton Elementary on 7th Street, just around the corner from the firehouse.
“Our investigation is ongoing,” Assistant County Prosecutor Thomas Fennelly said this week.
Baez did not respond to requests for comment. His lawyer could not be reached.
The captain’s widow, Rosiane Rivera, said toxicology testing found his blood contained traces of cocaine and fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that has been blamed for countless overdose deaths.
“What happened inside the fire department? I really don’t know,” Rivera said. “If something happened to him, it was an accident.”
A strain on firefighters?
The 89 transfers amount to roughly 15% of Newark’s just over 600 firefighters and captains, the state’s second-largest fire department after Jersey City.
Critics said the transfers punished personnel who had nothing to do with the January incident or drug use at the firehouse and whose personal and work lives have been disrupted by the abrupt changes in their workplace and coverage area, schedules, commute, coworkers and supervisors.
And, critics say, the move poses a potential threat to public safety due to the replacement, all at once, of the entire Park Avenue staff.
The transfers, they said, dissipated the individual and collective knowledge and experience accumulated over years of fighting fires in the area surrounding the Lower Roseville neighborhood covered by the firehouse, west of Branch Brook Park and north of Route 280.
“They put people where they’d never been before,” said a firefighter transferred out of the Park Avenue firehouse, who asked that his name not be used for fear of retribution. “I’m still learning the streets because where they put me, I’d never been in that area. Now, you’re going to be delayed on calls because you don’t know that area that well. You’re using your phone for GPS. It could be an emergency. It could be somebody hanging out the window.”
He said the transfers put a strain on firefighters moved elsewhere, among new colleagues and commanders with their own way of doing things.
“Morale is really down,” he said. “Instead of making the city stronger, they made it weaker.”
Battling substance abuse
The fire department, formally known as the Newark Fire Division, is part of the Department of Public Safety along with Newark’s 1,070-member police force and the city Office of Emergency Management. The leadership includes the director, Fragé, who Mayor Ras Baraka appointed last month; Deputy Director Raul Malave, a former firefighter who was in the job in January; and Fire Chief Rufus Jackson, the division’s top uniformed official.
Department officials expressed sympathy for the loss of Rivera, whose colleagues described him as a popular, hard-working and committed firefighter who lived in Sayreville with his wife and daughter. And while they insisted his firehouse overdose was an anomaly, they said help was available for any firefighter battling substance abuse.
“The death of Captain Rivera was a tragic but isolated incident,” the department stated, adding that “the Department of Public Safety offers an Employee Assistance Program through a private vendor. We also offer peer-to-peer counseling by trained facilitators who may refer members to professional treatment centers. These programs exist to support our members in addressing a wide range of issues they may face.”
NJ Advance Media obtained a copy of the transfer order issued on Jan. 18 by then-Public Safety Director Brian O’Hara, the official in charge of the fire department at the time. O’Hara, who was moved to a deputy mayor’s post in July, declined to comment.
Apart from the transfers, an internal investigation prompted O’Hara to suspend Battalion Chief Lamarence Best, whose command included the Park Avenue firehouse. Best declined to comment. And the department declined to comment on his status or say whether any other personnel had been disciplined.
But a spokesperson for Baraka, Crystal Rosa, released a separate statement addressing the transfers.
“The mayor always prioritizes the well-being of all city employees and would not do anything to jeopardize public safety,” the statement read. “This is a pending legal matter. Therefore we cannot discuss any more details.”
As shocking as Rivera’s death may have been, firefighting involves extraordinary physical and mental stresses, and it has long been associated with substance abuse, according to the International Association of Firefighters. The association is a professional organization concerned with health and safety issues that runs the Firefighters Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery, a drug treatment center in Maryland.
“Fighting fires and saving lives can cause an enormous psychological toll, resulting in nightmares, insomnia, intense stress and even mental health disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression,” states the association.
“While some firefighters turn to the bottle for comfort, others find refuge in other prescription and illicit substances. In many of these cases, addiction starts with an injury.”
Colleagues said Rivera had twice been injured on the job, first when falling on the oxygen tank strapped to his back after a floor collapsed, and more recently when struck in the eye by debris, prompting a 10-month leave of absence before his last return to duty.
Robert F. Ordway, president of the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association, a statewide organization dedicated to the health and financial well-being of retired and disabled firefighters, said he had heard about Rivera’s death, though not the subsequent transfers. Sadly, he said, news of a fire captain’s fatal overdose had not shocked him.
“We’ve had, around the state in different firehouses, firefighters who have committed suicide, firefighters who have had incidents of drug use, so it doesn’t shock me,” Ordway said. “But it is sad to hear.”
A friend of Rivera’s set up a Go Fund Me page to benefit the late captain’s family, which had raised more than $42,000 as of this week.
A widow weighs in
To his widow, the autopsy finding that Rivera had extensive lung infections complicated that fact that he died of a drug overdose.
“But I don’t want to think about how he died,” she said. “I want to think about how he lived.”
And how he lived, she said, was as a loving husband and father of a daughter who adored him and a passion for life and fighting fires.
“My husband had a complete passion for his job,” Rivera said. “He could have retired — he did 25 years there — but he loved being a firefighter.”
Using or having drugs in a firehouse is against department rules. But unlike the police, who are armed and charged with enforcing the law, Newark firefighters are not subject to random or regular drug testing. They can be forced to undergo testing, said West, the union president, but only if there is “reasonable cause” to suspect they’re under the influence.
But West said he was open to modifying the department’s drug testing policy, something he and department officials were discussing. He also said he hoped to have a collaborative relationship with Fragé.
“The department’s been in discussions about changing or updating the drug policy,” West said. “It’s not necessarily a random test. We’ve been working together to try to put something in place that works for everybody.”
Capt. Anthony Tarantino, president of the Newark Fire Officers Union, a separate union representing captains, declined to comment.
But Rivera supports random drug testing, and she lamented union opposition to it.
“This is not a way to protect the members,” Rivera said. “They should have testing.”
If they did, she added, “my husband might be alive today.”
NJ Advance Media staff writer Riley Yates contributed to his article.