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Mark Hayward's City Matters: Old injury a pain for would-be firefighter

April 02. 2014 10:51PM

MANCHESTER -- Jon Fosher wants to work for the Manchester Fire Department so much that he's ready to sue to get the job.

He doesn't take it lightly, and he said that's the last thing he wants to do.

But twice Fosher — a strapping 23-year-old who hopes to follow his father and grandfather into the city firefighter ranks — has been promised the job in writing. And twice he has been denied for medical reasons that his surgeon and state fire officials have said should not be an issue.

Still, the dream of being a firefighter burns inside him. It's a dream stoked by visits to the local firehouse, the beep of a fire radio, the swift departure of his father to a late-night fire call.

"You go to the (New Hampshire Fire) Academy, you do all the fire work there. You go through all this, you get hired, and it comes back to haunt you," Fosher said.

What haunts him is a car accident that happened when he was 16. He was the backseat passenger in a car that went off Hackett Hill Road at a high speed. Surgeons fused three vertebrae and used rods and screws to stabilize his spine during the healing process.

National standards say flat out that a firefighter can't be hired with rods in the back or if a surgeon has fused more than two vertebrae together.

The standards accommodate many ailments. As long as you pass physical and agility tests, you can have a history of substance abuse, cancer or heart surgery. You can have arthritis, migraines, partial limb amputation, irritable bowel syndrome, gastrointestinal bleeding, cystic fibrosis or hearing loss.

But you can't have a rod in your back.

Fire Chief Jim Burkush has twice offered Fosher the job. Burkush said he's been advised to avoid extensive comment on the case because Fosher has filed a complaint with the New Hampshire Human Rights Commission.

He said the job offers were contingent on Fosher passing a medical examination, and that hasn't happened.

"The doctor is totally impartial," Burkush said.

Meanwhile, Burkush is dealing with other issues related to employment. The mayor wants to reduce the number of firefighters working at any given time.

And Burkush told me he wants his department to reflect the demographics of the city as a whole. Although Manchester has employed a female firefighter in the past, the current crew is all male and all white.

Those issues aside, Fosher would be an ideal hire.

He has an associate degree in fire science. He holds a commercial driver's license and certifications for emergency medical technician and Firefighter II — all required before someone can even get interviewed for the job.

He's passed the physical agility tests of firefighters.

His orthopedic surgeon at Boston Children's Hospital has cleared him for work as a firefighter. And the New Hampshire Fire Standards and Training Commission granted a waiver from the back injury standards.

"Those of us who know Jon think he'd be a great firefighter," said Jeff Duval, the president of the Manchester Professional Firefighters Association, the union that represents 140 firefighters in the city. Duval notes that Fosher has completed all training and physical tests.

That's important because new hires are put on the job right away, Duval said.

The Human Rights Commission complaint is pending. The city has answered it, said Peter Chiesa, an assistant city solicitor who said he won't discuss the matter because of the pending complaint. If the commission doesn't make a ruling by the end of this month, Fosher has the option of filing a discrimination suit in federal court.

His lawyer, Jonathan Meyer, blames an unyielding bureaucracy. The blanket prohibitions about rods and back surgery violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said.

"It's a matter of people being so wrapped up in rules," Meyer said. "Jon has run into a bureaucracy and just can't get through it."

The legal ground he treads is difficult. Fosher says he's not disabled, but his claim alleges discrimination because of a disability. Meyer said the discrimination is based on the perception of a disability, not an actual disability.

Meyer said the matter can best be resolved if higher-ups in City Hall intervene.

Today, meanwhile, is a day for firefighters.

Thousands from across the country gather in Boston today out of respect for Michael Kennedy, a firefighter who died last week in the line of duty.

Lines of dress-uniformed firefighters will march in unison. Bagpipes will play a haunting dirge. White gloved, 200-pound behemoths will wipe away a stray tear that betrays an otherwise stoic expression.

And Fosher will show up at the Hooksett factory where he works the second shift.

"I've learned to realize I can't wait and put conditions on being happy," he said, "but this is what I want to do in life. My career's on hold."

Mark Hayward's City Matters runs Thursdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and on He can be reached at

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