Conn. Firefighter Suspended: Found Unfit Four Times

June 19--HARTFORD -- A Hartford firefighter who had been declared unfit for duty in four suspected alcohol-related incidents has been suspended for 89 days without pay.

Douglas Caldwell, 42, of Hartford, also signed an undated letter of resignation, saying he will resign if declared unfit again within the next two years, said Vincent Fusco, president of the firefighters union. The discipline followed discussions between Fire Chief Carlos Huertas and the union.

Caldwell had been on vacation leave.

Asked Thursday morning about Caldwell's change of status, Huertas declined comment.

"At this time, I cannot discuss or elaborate on an ongoing personnel matter," Huertas said.

Fusco said the unpaid suspension and the undated resignation letter "have been the way we handle what we consider strike two in the drug and alcohol policy."

If Caldwell completes the two years on the job without incident, he would earn a fresh start, Fusco said.

Hartford firefighters widely viewed Caldwell's conduct and upper management's response as a serious safety and credibility issue for the department, several fire supervisors said in interviews last week.

His unpaid suspension is the first serious discipline he has faced. Cawldwell has not responded to requests for comment.

Caldwell was declared unfit for duty in four suspected alcohol-related incidents between January 2012 and April 2014, including three times in a seven-month period, according to a Courant review of departmental records.

In one case, after Caldwell was sent home from the firehouse on suspicion of alcohol use, he returned to the station later in the day against the orders of his superiors. He began shouting at the lieutenant who had initially confronted him, according to records. The police were called. After Caldwell left the second time, members questioned the security in the firehouse, and the station captain requested that the entry code be changed, the records state.

Caldwell had been placed on paid administrative or vacation leave, and had been transferred to different firehouses or shifts. Those moves have produced further friction, as firefighters who have tangled with Caldwell in the past have stated in departmental memos that they cannot work with him.

Caldwell has also faced issues off the job.

Caldwell was recently arrested at Unity Plaza on Barbour Street in Hartford while off duty, and charged with public drinking.

It was Caldwell's second off-duty incident in two months. In April, Caldwell was ejected from JR's Convenience Store, at Garden and Westland streets, following a disturbance, the store's owner told The Courant. The police were called. Caldwell was not charged in that incident.

Several fire department supervisors said in interviews that Caldwell's conduct and the belated discipline created a liability in the department.

"If you worked for some company filing papers, you couldn't get away with this," said Deputy Chief Daniel C. Nolan, head of training in the department. "We're trying to protect people's lives. You have a bad day at work here and someone gets seriously hurt or dies."

The situation has grown "bigger than Doug Caldwell," said Nolan. "It's about the credibility of the department."

Caldwell has been a Hartford firefighter for more than 12 years and is a military veteran. He has stated in departmental records that he loves the job, and he has questioned why some of those who have confronted him over suspicions of on-duty alcohol use are "messing with his livelihood." He told supervisors during some of the confrontations that he believed he was fit for duty, records show.

After the latest incident on April 9, Caldwell went out on what "extended vacation leave," according to a department statement.

When The Courant pressed Mayor Pedro Segarra's office for an explaination of how the city was handlign the Caldwell matter, the department issued this statement:

"The City of Hartford Fire Department drug and alcohol policy is located within the collective bargaining agreement between the City of Hartford and our Union, that is what we follow. Pending completion of the investigation, he is currently on extended vacation leave. This is still an ongoing case so it is our policy not to provide details of an open personnel matter."

Under the drug and alcohol policy, a department member can opt for the employee assistance program when confronted by superiors over "reasonable suspicions" of alcohol or drug use.

This option is called "self-referral after confrontation." It is available to department members "once in any two-year period," according to the union contract.

It is not clear from the records provided to The Courant whether department administrators enforced that clause, or how many times Caldwell might have used the city's counseling program, which forestalls discipline while an employee is enrolled.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, The Courant received documentation of four incidents in which Caldwell was declared unfit for duty, occurring on Jan. 17, 2012; Sept. 27, 2013; Jan. 21, 2014; and April 9, 2014.

The records provide the following details:

Jan. 17, 2012: Caldwell was reported absent without leave at the start of the work shift. When Caldwell arrived at the firehouse, "I noticed his eyes were red, there was some sort of odor in the room, and his uniform was in disarray ... I followed him and witnessed him gargling and putting on either lotion or cologne," Caldwell's lieutenant, Michael Patterson, stated in his report, called a "fire-service memo" in department parlance.

Caldwell "said that he was in a car accident this morning with his daughter in Windsor. He initially stated that Windsor PD did not show up and later stated they did." The memo goes on to say that Caldwell gave a different account of that morning's activities to the district chiefs who had come to the firehouse to interview him.

"After speaking with Lt. Patterson and Firefighter Caldwell, a determination was made that he was unfit for duty. Firefighter Caldwell was taken to his sister's home (by another chief) after several unsuccessful attempts were made to provide transportation," wrote Deputy Chief Bernardo Guzman in his memo on the incident.

Sept. 27, 2013: Shortly after the morning roll call in the station house, Caldwell's lieutenant, Rodney Barco, began talking to Caldwell about a previous work shift. Barco "noticed (Caldwell's) eyes were a bit glossy; he smelled of Listerine with some alcoholic residue," Barco wrote in his fire-service memo. Barco went upstairs to contact a deputy chief, and Caldwell "came up soon after to discuss the issue some more and the conversation got a bit intense," Barco wrote.

Two district chiefs responded, along with representatives of the union and the employee assistance program.

Following interviews with Caldwell, "it was decided to move forward according to the drug and alcohol policy," Capt. Harry J. Tulier wrote in his account.

Caldwell was dismissed from the firehouse. He returned in the afternoon and angrily confronted Barco. Other members called the police. Caldwell was not arrested, but was sent home for the second time that day, prompting Tulier's request to change the entry code to the firehouse.

"I assembled the crew, and (a deputy chief) and I spoke with all about any concerns or issues, and the safety measures being put in place for the time being," Tulier wrote after the incident.

Caldwell was placed on administrative leave with pay, but returned in a matter of weeks.

Jan. 21, 2014: While Lt. Jarles Florez was at the training division, he received a text from a firefighter reporting that he had seen "Caldwell staggering and not able to walk straight" at the firehouse. Along with Florez, two chiefs and the union president, Fusco, responded to the station, according to Florez's memo. Caldwell was declared unfit for duty.

The fire department did not provide The Courant with any further documentation of that incident.

April 9, 2014: Capt. Luis Ocasio, in a fire-service memo to Huertas, said that Caldwell "presented with the odor of alcoholic beverage and irrational behavior, along with profuse sweating and trembling."

A deputy chief who had interviewed Caldwell reported in his memo that Caldwell said he had been out the night before, celebrating UConn's basketball victory.

"I then informed him that I had no choice but to start the process, unless he chose to self-refer. He agreed to self-refer," the deputy chief wrote.

On Jan 10, 2013, Caldwell was placed on administrative leave by then-Chief Edward Casares "pending an investigation of an incident we became aware of on Jan. 9, 2013."

The fire department did not provide The Courant with any documentation of that incident.

In 2007, Caldwell was accused of threatening to beat up a fellow firefighter, and to go to the colleague's home and beat up his infant child as well, records state.

This past February, after Caldwell had been transferred, two firefighters in separate memos cited past confrontations with Caldwell and said they could not work with him.

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