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Your Job Could Be Killing You – Here’sHow To Fight Back

April 30, 2024

Work-related stress is unavoidable in high-risk careers such as law enforcement, firefighting, and paramedicine. These demanding, fast-paced jobs can take a toll on heart health, and learning to manage stress and build healthy habits at the beginning of these jobs can make a significant difference in life expectancy and quality of life.


With more than three decades of law enforcement experience and nearly ten years of servitude with the American Heart Association (AHA), Retired Police Chief Frank G. Fernandez shares his thoughts on the link between adrenaline dumps, stress and anxiety, the importance of self-care, and the impact on heart health in the long term.
We start with a run through his years in law enforcement and explore a few strategies first responders should adopt to live longer healthier lives.


Please tell us about yourself, your professional trajectory, and your expertise in safety solutions.

My background comes from law enforcement primarily. It’s my foundation and where I built my career. I started at the age of 19 as a public service aide for the City of Miami Police Department. Nine months later I became a police officer and served with the City of Miami Police Department for 25 years. Within those 25 years, the department helped guide me through my formal education. I attended Miami-Dade College, obtained my bachelor’s degree from Barry University, and my master’s degree from Nova Southeastern University. I had great pride and gratitude to the City of Miami Police for helping me, and as a practitioner, I had the opportunity to work in several different units. I was a resource officer. I worked in narcotics as a Sergeant for five years and on a SWAT team for 13 years, both as a team operator and team leader. It was a very volatile, hands-on type of career. Then I held the unique position of being a Lieutenant on a very operational SWAT team at the City of Miami Police Department. I had the opportunity there to travel and become an instructor. I got promoted from Lieutenant to Commander and eventually to Deputy Chief.

I spent my last seven years at the City of Miami Police Department as Deputy Chief and Chief of Operations. When I retired from the City of Miami, I went to the City of Hollywood, where I became the chief of police and the assistant city manager. I oversaw the police, the fire department, and code enforcement. After four years there, I was recruited by the City of Coral Gables. I just couldn’t turn down the offer to come home to Coral Gables and to spend more time with my family.

Today, I work with the Department of Justice both at the Civil Rights Division and at the COPS, or Community Oriented Policing office. In the civil litigation section, I’ve investigated police departments across the country Most recently, I got called by the Attorney General of the United States government out of Washington to be part of a school shooting review. As an expert witness, I had the distinct opportunity, alongside other experts from around the country, to investigate and conduct a review of that incident.


What is your involvement with the American Heart Association?

I am honored to be a member of the American Heart Association board. I’ve been involved with the AHA since 2015. After my father passed, I met with his heart surgeon who prompted me to further educate myself on heart disease. He had me look into getting a full body scan; thankfully, this is something officers have the opportunity to get now, which helps with early detection. I was part of a heart study at Baptist Hospital, where I learned about the American Heart Association, so that kind of led me to be an advocate. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve been able to raise around $500,000 a year to research heart disease and for heart education and the wellness of others.


What’s the specific impact of heart disease on first responders?

Generally speaking, statistics show that their life expectancy after retirement is roughly between 5 and 10 years, and research indicates this is because of cardiovascular disease that builds up over a career. Genetically, some are susceptible to heart disease, but the job, because of the adrenaline going up and down every day throughout their career develops cardiovascular disease. To put this in perspective, having a 5 or 10-year life expectancy is really short in comparison to the average American, which is 20 years after retirement. But to really compound the problem, the average officer retires at the age of 45, whereas the average American retires at the age of 65.


So we’re talking a 20-year difference plus take away an additional 10 years, that’s 30 years that they’re losing in your life expectancy.

I’m a member of the American Heart Association to be an advocate for not just safety and police work and equipping them with the right equipment to save the public, but also to save themselves because they’re susceptible to heart disease and other cardiac issues. Also, to educate and hopefully push for more research on cardiovascular disease for our public safety first responders.


Back to your career trajectory, after knowing the effects of a public safety, first responder career on overall lifespan, was that ever a part of the decision-making process? When you were serving in such a high stress job, did you have that in the back of your mind? When you transitioned, did you feel like you were missing a part of yourself? Was the adrenaline, the high intensity, addicting?

Truth be told, I was not aware of the life expectancy until the latter part of my career. It wasn’t anything that we talked about inside the police department. You know, we train officers at the police academy on very basic principles of law enforcement, but we don’t really train them to survive a career. We trained to survive the outside, the street, tactics and training and maneuvering, but we don’t train them to survive the span of a career.

There are many aspects of surviving a career that are cornerstones of the AHA. That’s a healthy lifestyle and eating right. Officers sometimes have some really, really bad habits. You know the old cliché, if you go to a doughnut shop, you’ll see a cop. Do you know the reason, if you go back in history, that cops love doughnut shops? It’s because when you worked midnights, and it happened to me, that was the only thing that was open. So, you went to the doughnut shop. Everything else was closed.

The better part of looking at this is educating officers. Bring your own healthy food that fits your lifestyle. Don’t go out there and buy food, bring your own. I think that part of the education is still missing today in law enforcement. To answer your question about adrenaline, I think officers, including myself, become adrenaline junkies. You know, there are some parallels between heart disease and adrenaline. It goes up and down and up and down. That leads to cardiovascular disease that kills so many Americans today.


Considering your experience as a first responder, what does your involvement with the American Heart Association mean to you?

Thankfully, we’re talking more about heart health awareness. Hopefully, people become more aware of how to live a better, healthier lifestyle that gives you longevity. For police officers, I will tell you that it becomes an interesting adventure when they retire. I like to say that it’s almost like if you’ve been to Disney World. Think about Disney. In the center of the park behind the castle. Can you visualize it? Behind the castle, there’s a merry-go-round with horses that go up and down. Typically, one parent stands on the outside, and the other rides on the inside with the child. As you go around and around, you tell your son or daughter, look, there’s mom or dad, and you point out, but by the time they look, the person is already gone. Even though you’re moving at a very slow pace, it’s hard to focus on the outside. There’s a there’s a parallel there with our police officers in their careers.

They are on a merry-go-round for 25-30 years and they don’t really focus on the outside. They don’t really focus on what’s going to happen when that merry-go-round stops. When the merry-go-round stops, everything on the outside becomes very focused. And that adrenaline, when it drops, leads to several different challenges. Today, we’re seeing officers with the highest suicide rate in history.

We’re seeing a lot of this come after retirement. There are studies being done. There’s a lot of focus through the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) that deals with different issues affecting officers. We’re taking on this issue of officers and suicide after retirement. I believe personally that has a lot to do with adrenaline. I try to keep active. I’m staying on that merry-go-round as long as I can until I figure out how to slowly get off of it. But the other part of that is that if you have passion and purpose, and still have that heart and that love for giving and for contributing and for being part of something bigger and greater, it’s OK. It’s OK to continue so long as you do it in moderation.

I’m still a reserve officer with the City of Miami Police Department. I maintain my credentials. I’m still a certified police officer, but now I’m a tactical flight officer. Almost like a copilot in the helicopter unit. I like it. That’s where I chose to try to give back and manage how I stop, but not really stop and continue to contribute. I do that on the side to contribute to staying active and current in law enforcement. I’m also an expert witness under the Department of Justice and the federal government, and it keeps me current because I need to understand what officers are doing today. When you retire, that’s a perishable skill. You start to fade because you’re not current. The drive to contribute keeps the adrenaline going up and down for me; not as much, just a little bit.

Get your physicals every year. It’s about diet, education habits, and trying to relieve stress as much as possible. Being around great heart surgeons and listening to how they’re educating the public allows me the opportunity to be an advocate for law enforcement and public safety and to really echo what these heart surgeons are saying about healthier habits, a healthier heart, and how to get there.


Can you identify opportunities for growth or change within your industry?

I think this is a key opportunity for growth or change within the industry is healthy living. The mindset of not only preparing officers for what they’re dealing with, but how to have a career mindset of taking care of their health.

If you were to look at the program now, what would be some key changes that the Academy could reinforce to really make a difference outside of the curriculum?

I think there are internal and external opportunities for every officer, and it starts at the Academy when they become a police officer. Educating them on a healthier lifestyle, that’s internal. The external is giving them the equipment to save others and to save themselves as well. An automatic external defibrillator, to me it’s a tool that’s a must-have. I truly believe that today, if you don’t have or a facility doesn’t have an AED, you are outdated, and you’re signing a death warrant for so many people. What if you have a medical emergency in your facility or with one of your employees? Particularly for police officers, knowing that their life expectancy is shorter than everybody else’s. Knowing that their health styles are limited because of the shifts that they work. Departments need to strongly consider equipping every police vehicle with an AED as part of their budgets. Not just to help the public, although that’s a primary goal. We also need them to help police officers.


In a moment of thought during this interview, Frank slipped a little Spanglish into a sentence, for which we teased him for sprinkling a little flavor into the conversation. In epic fashion, he closed the interview with this last comment, “Es un orgullo estar con ustedes hoy aquí. En una oportunidad de buscar a la comunidad y como podemos hacer un buen trabajo, todo el mundo trabajando junto. Fue una gracia estar con ustedes hoy. Gracias.”

Chief, we’re honored; the pleasure was ours.


Want to learn more about Frank and what he’s doing now? Check out, a consulting group specializing in expert witness testimony, vulnerability assessments, and executive leadership coaching focusing on preparing our future law enforcement sergeants and lieutenants, as well as private sector executives, to achieve excellence and their career aspirations.