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Disabled Oswego firefighter loses first battle, but fate of position still up in air

Oswego firefighter/paramedic David Sackett speaks his attorney during hearing before Oswego Fire ProtectiDistrict Board determine whether he can stay positifire

Oswego firefighter/paramedic David Sackett speaks to his attorney during a hearing before the Oswego Fire Protection District Board to determine whether he can stay in the position of fire inspector on Thursday, May 30, 2013, after a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis made it impossible for him to "work the streets" as a firefigther/paramedic. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 19, 2014 11:59AM

For the past year, the biggest battle in firefighter David Sackett’s life has not been the multiple sclerosis he was diagnosed with in 2010.

“It’s been a long and stressful year,” he says, because his department has been trying to oust him due to his disability.

Since May, he and the Oswego Fire District have been duking it out in hearings before the Board of Fire Commissioners to determine if Sackett was justifiably fired after his disease make it impossible for him to fulfill his duties, and because he refused to take a test that would qualify him to do so.

In October, the board found him guilty on both counts. Since then, its members have been meeting to determine the second phase of this process: the penalty. And that’s been an equally drawn-out affair that could or could not come to a close on Friday.

That’s when the fire commission is supposed to announce whether that penalty is termination, discipline … or a settlement.

“The board may render a decision and decide to impose its findings” said Sackett’s attorney, Greg Friedman, “or it may extend it to a later date.”

Sackett’s case has been an interesting one from the get-go, in part, because as we all know, fire departments are all about brotherhood and teamwork.

In fact, immediately after Sackett told his employer about his disease that would eventually cripple him, both the firefighters and wider community rallied around him.

Chief Rick Neitzer, now on the other side of the battle, had even helped Sackett raise money for the MS Foundation.

In January of 2012, when he was no longer physically able to fight fires, Sackett was transferred by Neitzer to the Fire Prevention Bureau as an inspector, which is primarily a daytime desk job.

But in May the chief and fire district began termination proceedings against him, alleging he was unfit for duty and was insubordinate because he refused to take the firefighter test.

A large part of the hearings were arguments by the chief’s attorney that this position was only temporary, and that a firefighter must be able to respond to general alarms and pass a fitness test.

This is “not about sympathy,” declared the department’s attorney Stephen DiNolfo. “This isn’t a vendetta.”

But Sackett’s attorney countered that making him fire inspector redefined his duties and at no time did he fail to perform them.

Everybody knew the transfer took place because of his disability, Greg Friedman said back then. “And by removing that accommodation now, the fire department is violating Sackett’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act.”

Both sides claimed policies and procedures were misinterpreted or hijacked. Friedman also promised to take the case to federal court if his client is terminated.

That decision could be announced Friday. But one thing is for certain: the wait for the disabled firefighter has made life that much harder.

Because he’s still technically employed by the department, Sackett can’t file for unemployment or disability. And that means he’s not been bringing any income into the household since April.

“We’re working to resolve it,” he said. “But it’s been quite an ordeal.”

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