Fresh out of high school, I jumped into the hot seat working on an ambulance in Richmond, California. Working hard, I earned a spot teaching at the community college when I was 19 and was entrusted to serve the public as a professional firefighter in the San Francisco Bay Area at 23. Like many first responders, I did not have a backup plan because this was my dream; it was also a 30-year career, not a fly by night job.
Fast-forward, a critical injury with severe nerve pain ended my dream career at 29, just a few days after my birthday. What transpired was my worst nightmare, and the nightmare of many first responders and their family members who suffer when injured at work. Caught between the two cities I worked for and their pension plans, I was forced out on a leave without pay from the San Jose Fire Department. Ready to appear before the workers’ compensation court, my case was stalled by the defense attorneys for both cities, requiring us to reschedule some six months out on the judge’s calendar every time the defense did a legal stall tactic; this went on for seven years!
Earning my bachelor’s degree and MBA in three years, I went from home owner to selling my home to join the ranks of millions of Americans beholden to student loan debt; I also went from a six figure career to no figures as I tried to find a job without letting the world know I was disabled. I searched the web for financial resources to help my transition and noticed a trend, there are a ton of scholarships for children of deceased first responders and veterans. What about first responders who are injured?
Examining the resources within the veteran community, I discovered a major gap between what veterans receive when injured compared to first responders. I also noticed the solidarity across the veteran community as I found more support from them on my journey to recovery. You see, it doesn’t matter if someone is a cook in the Army or a Navy SEAL, they are a veteran at the end of the day and receive healthcare, no cost mental health treatment, a GI Bill, hiring preference points, home loan assistance, scholarships, and the ear of employers who are educated on the leadership skills of veterans.
The biggest challenge with first responders today, are first responders themselves. We’ve all been there during contract negotiations, putting cops vs. firefighters, and forgetting about those private ambulance workers without a pension who are doing a bulk of 911 service calls. We’ve also been there defending cultures that are in dire need of change. We are divided and this division is literally killing us as suicide becomes the health epidemic across our lines of work. It’s time to put the brotherhood and sisterhood into action.
Unlike veterans, our health issues are not tracked in a national database, even though they could be if healthcare systems recognized first responders in their electronic health records as a first step to improving preventative care. Unlike veterans, first responders do not have national oversight in all 50 states for mental health issues, chronic pain, and disability cases. The power of veteran policy initiatives rests in longitudinal data through the VA and DOD – in first responder terms, they have a ton of data all in one place. For first responders, our data is in siloes across local healthcare systems and the lack of awareness by providers speaks volumes as to why our people are suffering.
Unlike veterans, first responders who are disabled from their occupations do not receive a GI Bill or similar. While the Public Safety Officer Benefit (PSOB) program is out there, it is a burden to receive the benefits as one must meet social security’s stringent disability standards to receive educational support. Bottomline, the PSOB needs to be opened to include first responders who are medically retired and who do not meet social security’s disability standards so injured first responders have the support needed to transition without debt.
When I speak to first responder agencies across the US delivering my PTSD Aware program, I highlight the importance of taking the time to learn how the veteran community improves the resources and health outcomes of their people across all branches. While cops and firefighters have a different profile, just like a Navy SEAL and Marine Recon, they are both elite and share similar healthcare issues as a result of working in stressful occupations. As we understand more about stress, we also understand that stress fuels the dis-ease process spurring the growth of cancer, early aging, heart issues, diabetes, and mental health disorders that are prevalent behind the badge.
If you’re following the issue of mental health in first responders, you see horror stories across America everyday. If you’re following workers’ compensation issues in first responders, you see cities routinely denying care, benefits, and disability awards for what should be straight forward for line of duty injuries.
While first responders cannot solve the complex political issues that prevent us from getting the care, benefits, and transition support needed if injured, every first responder can demand more of their union leadership and elected officials to drive action on a joint resolution for first responders in Washington D.C. If the people in power aren’t delivering results, it’s time to start asking WHY. If you’re an advocate, be sure to leverage the power of social media, news interviews, etc. to highlight the disparity between what veterans receive and what first responders receive to stimulate a conversation to drive change.
Awareness is the first step to change. First responders need to become aware that this is a shared issue and that there is more power in unity when going up against the insurance industry, Congress, and lobbying efforts used to silence our voices. We must unite with our veterans to learn how to craft a unified brand called First Responder, that receives the immediate response before state and federal officials. No first responder deserves to go through what I’ve endured and what thousands of others have endured. Our unions must also fight harder than ever before to support those who are injured, whether they have one day on the job or 30 years, as union membership declines across America. There are enough external forces fighting us. It’s time we work together and quit fighting ourselves.
Drew Aversa, MBA is an inspirational speaker, leadership coach, author, consultant, and former firefighter/paramedic. Aversa is an advocate for first responders, speaking nationally on the issue of PTSD, resiliency, and policy needs to drive better healthcare outcomes for our nation’s heroes. Book him for your next workshop at www.DrewAversa.com and connect on LinkedIn to join his 10K+ network today.