By Steve Strunsky
NEWARK, N.J. — Newark’s former public safety director was within his authority when he reassigned every firefighter out of a city firehouse where a captain had died of a drug overdose while on duty in January, according to the state Civil Service Commission.
In a Nov. 2 decision obtained by NJ Advance Media, the commission rejected an appeal of the reassignments filed by the Newark Firefighters Union on behalf of members who were moved out of the Park Avenue firehouse following the Jan. 15 fatal overdose of Capt. Carlos Rivera. The appeal was also on behalf of other firefighters reassigned to the firehouse as replacements. A total of 62 of the 89 transferred firefighters appealed.
Among its findings, the commission said: Former director, Brian O’Hara, did not need to provide 30 days’ notice of the emergency reassignments, which were effective Feb. 3. It also cited the reasons O’Hara gave for the reassignments — to protect public safety and preserve public confidence in the fire department — and found no evidence to support the union’s claim that O’Hara acted in bad faith.
“The commission orders that these appeals be denied,” states the decision, signed by the commission’s chairperson, Deirdé Webster Cobb.
The union argues “that since the appointing authority has failed to provide a lawful justification for the reassignments, other than to punish them, their reassignments must be reversed,” the decision stated. But, it added, “there is no indication in the record that the reassignments were due to the inactions or actions of the appellants or were for remedial or disciplinary reasons.”
In the grievance and interviews with NJAM, firefighters asserted that the wholesale reassignments threatened public safety by placing them in unfamiliar coverage areas, which could hinder their responses or ability to work as a team. The commission’s 6-page decision briefly alluded to the union’s assertion but did not address it directly.
The decision said civil service rules did not protect firefighters from the loss of stipends or other benefits specific to the locations from which officials reassigned them.
The president of the firefighter’s union, Chuck West, said he was “disappointed in the decision in its entirety.”
But West said the union would not contest the commission’s decision, which would mean filing an appeal in state Superior Court.
“We will move forward, representing our men and woman in the NFD, as we always do,” West said, referring to the Newark Fire Division, which is part of the Department of Public Safety, along with the city’s police force and office of emergency management.
O’Hara, now the police chief in Minneapolis, did not respond to requests for comment on the commission’s ruling.
Newark’s top lawyer, Corporation Counsel Kenyatta Stewart, welcomed the ruling.
Addressing the union’s contention that the reassignments jeopardized public safety by placing firefighters into new environments with new colleagues, Stewart said they had all graduated from the same fire academy and regularly responded outside their coverage areas when fires or staffing demanded it.
“These people are trained,” Stewart said.
As shocking as news of Rivera’s overdose may have been to some, experts say substance abuse is not unheard of among firefighters, who sometimes turn to alcohol or illicit drugs to manage the stresses of their life-and-death occupation. Unlike Newark police officers, firefighters are not subject to random drug testing.
Sources told NJ Advance Media in the wake of Rivera’s death that drug use was common at the Park Avenue firehouse, where a retired firefighter who was with Rivera that night also overdosed but survived. At the same time that O’Hara ordered the reassignments, he also suspended a battalion chief in charge of the firehouse.
A spokesperson for the public safety department could not immediately provide an update on the battalion chief’s status.
In July, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office announced drug charges against a 42-year-old Kearny man in connection with Rivera’s death. A spokesman for the prosecutor’s office said Thursday that the case was pending a grand jury presentation.