The citizens of our nation owe a world of gratitude to our first responders for the stressful and difficult jobs that they perform in saving lives every day. Unfortunately, the chronic nature of job stress is more than many first responders can manage without finding ways to decompress the emotional and physical toll that it takes on their bodies. Many first responders turn to having a few drinks or experimenting with drugs to help them find a little homeostasis after a rough call, never thinking that it could turn into an addiction.
The rate of addictions among all first responders is generally higher than non-first responder occupations. First responders who realize that they are not able to stop drinking to excess or stop taking drugs may be willing to seek treatment for addictions. Fear of losing their jobs often stops them in their tracks.
First responders who abuse substances pose a hazard to public safety because drugs and alcohol alter mood and cognition. Those who seek treatment perform better and help to maintain safety for themselves, their peers, and the public they serve.
How Prevalent Are Addiction Problems Among First Responders?
Within every classification of first responder including firefighters, police officers, EMS professionals, emergency dispatchers and correction’s officers, there is an increased risk of PTSD. There is also a direct relationship between job-related stress and substance abuse. Studies show that about twice as many people with PTSD experience some type of substance dependence in their lifetime than those without PTSD.
The U.S. Firefighters Association reports that firefighters abuse alcohol at about twice the rate of the general population and they suspect about 10% of firefighters may be using drugs to cope with PTSD and job-related stressors. A Virginia Beach Fire Department survey showed that Employee Assisted Programs (EAP) were the most successful interventions for dealing with drug and alcohol problems.
Will Self-Reporting of Addictions Lead to Job Loss?
When many first responders are ready to confront their addictions and seek treatment, they may fear that their employer won’t allow them to return to work. They are also dealing with many other fears like being judged by their peers and how entering treatment will affect their relationships with family and friends.
The reality is that getting treatment can actually help first responders keep their jobs. Many employers and peers already know. They are happy to hear that the first responder is taking positive action for recovery. Many employers have zero-tolerance policies for drug and alcohol use. It is better to self-report and ask for assistance than to fail a urine test and be fired on the spot.
Employers in the field of first responders are typically aware of the risks of substance abuse in connection to their occupations. They also know that once their employees receive help through recovery, their work performances improve as they become free of toxins. Being clean from substance abuse helps them think more clearly and respond more quickly during emergencies.
Are There Laws or Programs That Help First Responders Keep Their Jobs?
Some of the federal laws are designed to help people with addictions to keep their jobs. Certain industries also have employer assistance programs to help people struggling with addictions to recover and get back to work. Health insurance is another resource that helps many first responders be able to access treatment without risking the loss of their jobs.
In every situation, It’s important to understand that addiction is an illness.
People with illnesses and diseases are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
ADA requires employers to make reasonable arrangements with employees so that they can participate in treatment. ADA won’t protect active substance abusers, but it does protect employees from employers that pursue firing an employee for poor past performance because of substance abuse issues.
FMLA is a federal law that was passed in 1993. It allows employees to take up to 12 work weeks off for qualified medical and family reasons. Acceptable reasons include personal or family illness, family military leave, pregnancy, adoption, and foster care placement of children. Addiction treatment qualifies under medical reasons, so people can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for recovery and still retain their jobs.
Many industries are now forming employee assistance programs (EAP) to help employees with personal or work-related problems that affect their work performance. EAP’s typically offer free confidential assessments, referrals, and other resources. EAP counselors also facilitate discussions with managers and supervisors to address their needs or concerns.
The Standard on Fire Department Occupational Safety and Health Program requires fire departments to offer member assistance programs. Many other first responder departments have developed EAP programs on their own. First responders who don’t have access to an EAP within their own department may call Frontline Responder Services new peer support hotline at 866-854-7400.
Since addiction is an illness, some first responders may be able to take advantage of short or long-term disability programs which will provide at least a partial income during the recovery process.
About Return to Work Agreements
Return to Work Agreements (RTWA) are a tool that employers can use when they have approached an employee about their work performance or inappropriate behavior related to substance abuse and they want to help the employee get treatment and successfully return to work. EAP’s also use RTWA’s to help gain cooperation and support from employers.
An RTWA is a written document that outlines the employer’s expectations for employees returning to work after addiction treatment. RTWA’s may be coordinated by the employer with the aid of an EAP counselor, union representative, or addiction treatment professionals. Employees must agree to abide by certain conditions upon returning to work. Agreements contain provisions like abstaining from non-prescribed substances, regular drug testing, compliance with the treatment program, and provide medical updates. The company may discipline the employee for non-addiction related incidents. Employers agree to accept employees back to work after treatment without regard to discrimination.
Employers have grounds to terminate an employee who fails to meet conditions of the RTWA. Employees have grounds for discrimination towards employers who fail to keep their part of the agreement. In summary RTWA’s help the employee and the employer.
Where to Find Answers to FAQ’s About Keeping Your Job Through Recovery
There’s no need for first responders to worry about losing their jobs when seeking treatment for addictions. Advanced Health and Education, Cedar point Recovery and Frontline Responder Services have counselors who are ready to help.
The credentialed counselors at Advanced Health & Education assess the unique needs of each person seeking addiction treatment to provide the most comprehensive and beneficial treatment plan for individuals and their families. Each patient gets a customized team of therapists who plan, implement, and monitor every phase of the recovery process. The program offers state-of-the-art facilities with a full range of alternative treatments including chiropractic services, acupuncture, and yoga.
Frontline Responder Services is a unique program that was designed especially for the unique needs of first responders. Clients will be greeted by a staff of counselors who are either active or retired first responders who understand the stressors and pressures of first responder employees. The counselors at Advanced Health and Cedar Point Recovery use their own experiences to help clients feel at ease and be willing to accept help through peer support, employee assistance and crisis intervention.
Mark W Lamplugh Jr
Mark Lamplugh is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He was the Chief Executive Officer with 360 Wellness Inc. (www.360wellness.org) and currently the Vice President of Responder Services (www.frontlinerehab.com) with Advanced Health & Education (www.advhealth.com) and Cedar Point Recovery (www.cedarpointrecovery.com). Lamplugh is also nationally recognized in Crisis Stress Intervention through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Lamplugh hosts his own talk show called "Firefighter Wellness Radio" (www.blogtalkradio.com/fireengineeringtalkradio) with Fire Engineering. He has helped hundreds of firefighters, police officers, veterans, EMS personnel, and civilians nationwide find help for addiction, alcoholism, PTSD, and mental health support. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com.