Conn. fire union leader files complaint against fire chief over suspension

The issue centers around the union leader's sharing a photo of an injured firefighter with a local newspaper


By Evan Lips
New Haven Register

NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Fire union Secretary Frank Ricci claims in a state Department of Labor complaint that Fire Chief Allyn Wright tried to suspend him for 15 days for sharing photos of a fellow injured firefighter with the New Haven Independent despite the fact the department lacks a formal policy when it comes to personnel interacting with the press.

"Chief Wright attempted to levy a 15-day suspension without even asking one question," Ricci said Friday. "The facts will clearly demonstrate a pattern of harassment and retaliation."

Scott Nabel, a human resources manager for the city, said Ricci would not be suspended.

Ricci's March 19 complaint, recently obtained by the Register, alleges that the "actions of the chief in threatening a union officer with discipline constitutes a violation of Ricci's constitutional and civil rights."

The events in question date back to a Feb. 28 fire that broke out at a Dickerman Street house. During the course of putting out the blaze, probationary firefighter Jason Rivera suffered second-degree burns to his legs, according to the report from the New Haven Independent.

Ricci is mentioned in the Independent's report as having visited Rivera the following day at the Burn Center at Bridgeport Hospital. Ricci submitted the photos the Independent has of Rivera's burns.

Quoted in his capacity as a union representative, Ricci told the Independent, "Firefighters are told in the academy that if you do this job long enough you will get hurt. Probationary firefighter Rivera's burns are a direct result of putting the public's safety above his own."

Ricci said Friday that Rivera was willing to share photos of his injuries.

Ricci pointed out in his labor complaint he has a history of interacting with the press.

"Ricci, as secretary of the union and drill master (at the New Haven Fire Academy), continues to be outspoken about the need for training and to change the New Haven Fire Department's standard operating procedures," his complaint states.

Ricci was the named plaintiff in the lawsuit for which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled one Hispanic and 19 white firefighters were unfairly denied promotion when the city scrapped two civil service exams in 2004 because few minorities would have made rank. The suit and the outcome have made national news numerous times.

The 2015 labor complaint notes that Ricci was ordered to report to Wright's office along with another union representative on March 10. Ricci "appeared as directed," the complaint states, adding that Fire Inspector Ralph Colon also appeared per a request from Wright.

"The chief has no right to select union representatives or to direct members of Local 825 to appear at meetings to represent the union," Ricci's complaint alleges.

According to Ricci, Wright asked him to report to his office to talk about photos and comments Ricci shared with the Independent.

"This disciplinary hearing was a complete ruse perpetrated to violate my protected speech under state labor law and the U.S. Constitution," Ricci said.

Per the complaint:

"Ricci's discipline was, according to the chief, based upon four claims: 1) The chief's office did not approve the release; 2) the photos in the newspaper article included pictures that children could find in bad taste; 2) OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) confiscated the injured firefighter's gear and wanted to see his training records, and; 4) Ricci and the union (do) not have the right to release photos and/or to make comments in the newspaper."

Reached Friday, Wright directed questions to Nabel, a human resources manager at City Hall.

Nabel said Ricci's municipal prohibitive practices complaint likely will not be reviewed and finalized until at least a month.

Nabel acknowledged that the Fire Department does not have specific rules and regulations when it comes to interactions with the press.

"Frank (Ricci) never got disciplined and he's not going to get disciplined," Nabel said. "There are questions about freedom of speech. If there are set rules in place, you can discipline an employee when they don't follow the rules. If there are no rules, it's hard to discipline."

Last month Wright suspended two firefighters after they reportedly had engaged in a shoving match while at the scene of a Winthrop Avenue fire.

Lt. Richard Rountree was issued a one-day suspension while firefighter Gennaro D'Amato was suspended for six days. Their suspension documents cited the city's workplace violence policies and various codes of conduct.

Ricci's complaint states that Wright initially looked to punish him by suspending him for the maximum amount of time allowable under the fire chief's discretion.

"After a short meeting with the chief, the union representative informed Ricci that Chief Wright wanted to suspend him for 15 days but he may be able to get a few days lower," the complaint notes.

According to city ordinances, the fire chief does not need final approval from the Board of Fire Commissioners in order to issue a suspension with a duration of 15 days or less.

"The moral staircase of the New Haven Fire Department has burned through and Chief Wright is standing at the top," Ricci said. "I am confident that I will be vindicated at the State Labor Board and the chief's actions will be exposed."

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(c)2015 the New Haven Register (New Haven, Conn.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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