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Conn. firefighter, Navy SEAL helps veterans find careers as first responders

North Haven Lieutenant Chris Shea created “Hero to Hero” to help veterans find careers in public safety


Lieutenant Chris Shea.

Hero to Hero/Facebook

By Brian Zahn
Journal Inquirer

NORTH HAVEN, Conn. — For veterans, coming off active duty can lead to a type of shell shock.

Chris Shea, a North Haven firefighter and retired Navy veteran, knows how it feels.

“When you’re on active duty, your paycheck comes on the 1st and 15th unless the government shuts down. You know where you’re going and you’re told where to go and what to do and when to be there and why,” he said. “In the civilian world, you have freedom and liberty, but it also means you have the freedom and liberty to run around in circles.”

Shea, who enlisted in the military in 1991 and remained as a reservist until his retirement this January, said that for many in the military, there is a shared sense of purpose. The process of seeking a job where there’s no immediate guarantee that veteran applicants can find a role with a similar sense of purpose can be difficult, he said.

“A lot say they’ll get out and conquer the world, then they find themselves in a cubicle and not feel like it’s what they signed up for,” he said.

He’s now using his nonprofit, Hero to Hero, to establish a pipeline to connect veterans reintegrating into civilian life to first responder jobs in police, fire and emergency medical services. He came up with the infrastructure for it as a capstone project while completing his online degree with Charter Oak State College while stationed at the Pentagon. He manages it when he’s not on duty with North Haven’s Fire Department.

A key component of that effort is the U.S. Department of Defense’s SkillBridge program, which offers job training, apprenticeships and internships to veterans. Shea said he recognized an opportunity to partner closer with municipal first responder programs to bolster and support veterans seeking to use the skills they learned in the military in such roles.

“It seemed like it was an underserved area,” he said.

A lot of the available programs for veterans, he said, tended to prioritize things like solar panels or trades, such as plumbing and electrical.

“I think there’s some similarities in police and fire and even EMS and the military,” he said. “It’s the service-oriented side, the camaraderie, having guys hanging out waiting for an emergency to happen and the buzzer goes off and there’s a common sense of purpose and mission. I think it’s a natural fit for folks coming out of the service.”

According to statistics provided by the state Department of Labor, 791 veterans were served by the department’s veteran programs since April 2023. CTDOL research economists said the unemployment rate for veterans is 3.5 percent, smaller than the statewide average of 3.7 percent.

CTDOL research economists report that 17.9 percent of the state’s 62,942 veterans in the state’s workforce work in manufacturing jobs, a sector that comprises 10.6 percent of the state’s overall jobs, according to the most recent population survey. Education and health, the state’s largest employment sector with 26.2 percent of the state’s 1.84 million jobs, is the second-largest employment sector for veterans, with 15.9 percent of the veteran workforce included in health and education jobs.

Although public administration jobs, which include the type of first responder jobs highlighted by Hero to Hero, comprise 4.1 percent of the state’s jobs, 11.2 percent of Connecticut’s working veterans are employed in that sector. According to DOL statistics, it’s the fourth-largest employment sector for veterans in Connecticut, although the top three sectors — manufacturing, education and health, and professional and business services — all offer more than twice as many jobs.

Ron Catania, a veterans outreach worker with the Connecticut Department of Labor, said his office works with veterans at all levels, connecting them with resources. Even if the services veterans need do not fall under the purview of the DOL, he said his office is able to direct them to the right place.

“We’re taking a veteran from the beginning, when they return from service, as well as any other veteran that would come in for services and putting a plan together for their career,” he said.

Meeting the needs is not always straightforward, he said, as veterans may be at different places in their lives. However, he said his office is prepared to work with any veteran who is prepared to apply themselves to finding a job.

“It’s a tough process, especially for a veteran coming out of the service not knowing what he or she wants to do, and us trying to guide them in the right direction,” he said.

Catania said his own sense of purpose in his role is largely motivated by his own experience as an Air Force veteran who was deployed to Vietnam during the Vietnam War. He said there was less collaboration between government bureaucracy intended to ensure veterans don’t slip through the cracks in 1969.

“We were misguided in what our direction would be. We had to make up our own plan,” he said. “We didn’t have programs to help us with a resume, we didn’t have programs to help us do a job search. We had a situation of basically being hopeless.”

Catania said seeking higher education after returning home helped to reorient him in the right direction, but not all of his colleagues had such a soft landing.

“Things are so much better now, but veterans have to be in it to win it,” he said. “It’s no different than not leaving a man behind: we’re not going to leave any veteran in a situation where we can help them.”

Catania said the Hero to Hero program is a good idea because it’s helping to connect municipal agencies with staffing shortages to qualified workers who have transferrable skills.

Shea said one incentive for municipalities looking to hire veterans to first responder roles in partnership with the Hero to Hero program is that federal funding from the SkillBridge program will cover fringe benefit costs that the municipality would otherwise encumber as they put their recruits through the academy for several months.

Shea said the goal is for Hero to Hero to become a national program, but he is intentionally and deliberately scaling up what he considers a “mom-and-pop operation.” Thus far, he said the program has helped to successfully connect 40 veterans to first responder jobs in roughly 12 states since 2022.

“I still get a charge from hooking people up who deserve it,” he said.

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