Florida passed a law for the first time last year covering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for first responders under workman’s comp. However, the struggle still continues elsewhere. In Georgia, firefighters, like 30-year-old Robbie Sawyer, are left to fend for themselves if they are dealing with PTSD.
Sawyer was working 96 hours a week as a firefighter in Camden County, Georgia, which meant more stress and less time with his family.
"I grew up around it, it’s been in my blood, I knew that’s what I wanted to do, it was my biggest passion," said Sawyer.
Firefighting was always his dream. His grandfather was stationed in Jacksonville and so was his great-grandfather, who is pictured in a mural in the San Marco Firehouse Subs restaurant.
But one day, everything changed for Sawyer.
"I was sitting in the fire station one day and after dinner, for no reason, I just came unglued, my heart started racing, I started sweating, I thought I was having a heart attack," said Sawyer.
He thought he was going to die that night.
"And that’s when I learned about the joys of panic attacks."
He suffered through them every night for months. He knew the cause. A career consisting of constant traumatic events. It only got worse after the death of his father. He was in a continual battle trying to save other lives.
"As you start losing those battles, and it happens to everyone, that’s’ when it really tests you."
He knew it was getting worse and as a father, he didn’t want that risk, especially since there were few resources for him.
"If you suffer enough panic attacks you can risk cardiac damage to yourself."
In Georgia, PTSD is not covered under workman’s comp.
"They said, 'we can give you short-term disability,' which is 60% of your base rate pay."
Which for him equaled coverage of $6.75.
"It’s, I hate to say laughable, but I guess anything is better than nothing."
With his life on the line, he made the tough decision to walk away.
"Life is short. When a fireman needs help, what is there to do, that's how I feel."
Since leaving the fire department Sawyer has completed a degree at FSCJ with honors. Although he still worries about his fellow firefighters out in the field, he can appreciate more time with his family and a healthier life all around.
There are few recent national studies about PTSD and firefighters, but one survey found a direct correlation to PTSD and suicide. Another 2015 survey found one in 15 paramedics and EMTs attempt suicide.
That’s why firefighters like Sawyer are speaking out.
After this story aired, John Simpson, a public relations representative for Camden County, reached out to First Coast News. He sent us the following statement:
"Camden County takes the mental health of our employees very seriously, particularly our first responders that may be prone to PTSD. To that end, Camden County provides every employee with free, confidential mental health counseling through our employee assistance program. This program offers an immediate resource to mental health counselors for any number of personal, familial or psychological issues and up to 4 counseling sessions to help them cope with acute mental health issues.
For employees that need longer term mental health counseling, our employee health plan also covers both in-patient and out-patient mental health counseling. While Georgia law may not yet recognize PTSD as an eligible condition for workers compensation, attracting and retaining the best first responders is an important priority of Camden County. In an intensely competitive job market, we want interested firefighters to know we are concerned about their health and well being."