Asthmatic Massachusetts Firefighter Terminated

A Lawrence, Massachusetts firefighter who was denied a disability pension for an asthma condition, has been terminated.

Tim Atwood, 49, a Lawrence firefighter since 2004, was terminated last week. He has been out of work since January 11, 2012, when he claims that exposure to diesel exhaust in the station caused a relapse of his asthma. Last March his request for a disability pension was denied. He had been on unemployment since August when his vacation and sick leave ran out.

Lawrence Firefighters, IAFF Local 146 have filed grievances on Atwood’s behalf, seeking to have him reassigned as a dispatcher. The department offered him a civilian dispatcher position, but at less pay than a firefighter.

The crux of Atwood’s problem is that he left the military as a “disabled veteran” due to asthma in 1996. Atwood claim’s the city knew about his asthma when they hired him. In addition his doctor says his present condition is significantly worse than it was in 1996 when he left the military.

Dr. David Christiani, a pulmonologist, wrote  “Mr. Atwood’s asthma was hastened, aggravated and exacerbated to the point of disability as a result of occupational exposure to gas, dust, vapors and fumes, particles and other materials as an active firefighter. He is now disabled from his work as a firefighter because of this and this disability is permanent.”

Atwood has already filed with the EEOC alleging disability discrimination and the union is vowing to challenge the termination.

More on the story and a related question: To what extent should a firefighter candidate’s pre-existing medical condition be allowed to become a factor in their hiring (Note: at present a pre-existing medical condition cannot even be considered unless the candidate cannot perform the essential functions of the job… with or without reasonable accommodation…. sorry … just to be precise).  And as a follow up is it fair that the taxpayers get saddled with the associated costs?


About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
  • Jason

    I wonder if the fact he was a Veteran played a part in his hiring regardless of his existing medical condition. Civil service coupled with disabled/prior military employment must have bumped him to the top of the list. More of a headache for a municipality to refuse to hire a vet?

    • BH

      I believe it’s correct that disabled veterans get more preference than anyone in civil service hiring.

      My problem is, if someone is too disabled to fight in a war, how are they sufficiently healthy to fight in a burning building?


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