We recently published an article that identified some of the protective factors that help reduce the risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in career firefighters (here) but what about the risk of PTSD with those of you that are volunteer firefighters?
The National Fire Protection Association reported that there were “approximately 1,140,750 firefighters in the U.S. in 2013. Of the total number of firefighters 354,600 (31%) were career firefighters and 786,150 (69%) were volunteer firefighters.” (NFPA, 2014).
That is a huge number of you that volunteer day in and day out to interrupt your normal life at work or home at a moment’s notice and jump at the call to help your community. How do you go from responding to a call one minute and then immediately go back to whatever it was you were doing before you raced to the fire station? Unless you found this magic on/off switch on your body somewhere, (if you did, you should patent that right away), you can’t just shut it all off and go back to your life as it was right before a difficult call.
Many small town America fire departments can sometimes barely afford the equipment you need just to function let alone fund the support you would need following a horrific call.
This one hits home for me because I can remember like it was yesterday hearing my father’s pager go off in the next room, alerting not only him but the entire family that there was a crisis in our small town that needing rescuing. I can still hear the front door slam shut and hear his footsteps pound the sidewalk as he started to run the block down the hill to the volunteer fire station. Each time that pager went off, the men that volunteered for our small town quickly tossed off their hat of being a construction worker, farmer, banker, and ran to put on a helmet and gear. You always knew that our volunteer fire department was out there saving the day when you saw all the haphazardly parked cars and trucks belonging to our firefighters scattered along the street downtown. They got to the station as fast as possibly, never knowing what crisis was awaiting them, never knowing if they were rushing to help a neighbor, a friend or even a family member.
So, you put your life on the line as a volunteer, and your community would feel your absence if you weren’t there, right? Why is there such limited information out there on how this drastically impacts your mental well-being?
It appears that there has been a total of two, that’s right two studies on the effects of trauma on volunteer firefighters. It took a grad student in Ontario, Canada to publish one of them in 2010. Brad Campbell, a Seguin Township resident, a graduate of the School of Social Work at Laurentian University, conducted a two-year study of nine volunteer firefighters to help figure out how big of a problem this really is. His thesis can’t even be found online to see what this 95-page book says because it is probably tucked away on some dusty library shelf in Ontario. The big take away from his two-year study was this: volunteer firefighting psychological trauma remains overlooked.
I don’t think that comes as a surprise to most of you. If you are interested in reading the super short article about that, you can find it here.
Sometimes it doesn’t just stop at PTSD either.
The effects of PTSD can lead to even bigger and more permanent problems, such as taking your own life.
The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) is currently tracking the number of suicides each year for all firefighters, both volunteer, and career. Last year alone there were 112 suicides. Since the FBHA started tracking this information in 2012, there has been a total of 754 suicides.
We are talking about 754 avoidable firefighter deaths. Many of these suicides could have been prevented if there was help readily available, easily accessible, and perhaps even required. You can find more of this research at FBHA.
The reality here?
A volunteer firefighter has an increased chance of struggling with PTSD. It could be assumed that the volunteer has an even greater chance than that of a career firefighter because the protective factors are not in place as they are with career firefighters.
Now imagine responding to call where a teenager has been ejected from a vehicle, you are first one scene, and the teen is a mangled corpse. You place her human remains into a body bag, finish the call, and return home to wash the blood off your clothes just in time to enjoy dinner with your family and the 6:00 news.
This scenario, which is common among volunteer firefighters, highlights the need for intervention. Encourage your volunteer fire department to take the initiative for all their members. PTSD support should be a priority for every department.
PTSD isn’t about what’s wrong with you, it’s about what happened to you.
There are resources out there for volunteers. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) has teamed up with the American Addictions Center (AAC) to offer you and your family a free and confidential helpline. You can call 1-888-731-FIRE 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. The person that answers the phone knows what you are going through, has been there, and has the resources to help you. You can also access more help, training, and resources for not only you but your entire department by visiting http://www.nvfc.org/.
There are a lot of you out there. Each and every one of you deserves to be taken care of just as you take care of your friends, your neighbors, members of your community, and complete strangers.
At the end of the day, this isn’t a new problem. PTSD is an issue that has existed since the dawn of firefighting and other traumatic events. The psychological impacts just haven’t been fully considered until recently. It seems; however, there is a stronger focus on career firefighters while less of an open and verbal concern for volunteers.
You answer the call to help others at a moment’s notice, and many of you may believe that since you are there to help others, you can’t reach out for help yourself. You don’t have to be a statistic; you can get the help you need. Talk to someone, talk to anyone, your life is just as valuable as the person you are rescuing when the alarm goes off.
PTSD is real, and it needs everyone’s attention.
Fitness. Diet. Mental Wellness.
Firefighter health and wellness is one of those topics that immediately turns off most readers. It’s not a fun topic to read about and for most people its hard to acknowledge our weaknesses. Likewise, trying to get firefighters to admit their weaknesses is nearly impossible.
Responding to car accidents, trauma victims, fires, destruction, disasters, untimely and timely deaths, blood, screaming, dire situations, rescues, shootings, stabbings, domestic, violence, toxic chemical spills… we handle it all. Each call takes a little piece of us without us even realizing it.
The average citizen would take the action of breaking a window as being extreme or performing CPR for the layperson would be a life changing experience, where for us, it’s all part of daily life on the job. There is a necessary tendency where we have to remove the emotion of the situation in order to mitigate it. Repeating that action over a career has the ability to produce adverse mental health consequences. Sometimes I think we’re just here to bare witness to the worst humanity has to offer and somehow deal with it.
Mental illness in firefighters should be an expectation instead of a rare or embarrassing occurrence. Granted we are a unique breed of people where we can accept the tragedies of the days events and go back to normal life, however, when coupled with the mental challenges of running calls, add in a careers worth of sleep deprivation, poor diet, inadequate exercise, family stress, anxiety leading to depression…and you get the picture. Each one, individually, can deliver an entire host of problems. Together it’s almost a guaranteed recipe for struggle.
As firefighters, we tend to mask , hide, or deny there is anything wrong with us. Some of us are affected more than others, while few, seemingly, aren’t affected at all. Mental illness is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign that we have souls, a heart, and a conscience. At times in our life we could all use a guide map or directions.
Station Pride is taking the initiative to promote firefighter health and wellness. A cornerstone of taking pride in the fire service is to take pride in ourselves and each other. We all need to remove the stigma of mental health and obesity, address suicide prevention, PTSD support, and addiction assistance, while promoting positive mental health, physical fitness, and practical healthy eating.
Our initiative involves pulling together existing and amazing resources for firefighters to seek guidance or receive the assistance they may need. We will post regular wellness articles and content provided by FireStrong.org, Firefightersweightloss.com, and Tongs and Turnouts.
Please stay tuned and help Station Pride end the stigma of mental health while assisting brothers and sisters with weight-loss and diet change by making these topics a part of everyday firehouse conversation. It’s time we take the lead on changing the culture of our profession. It’s past time
Firestrong.org is an independently operated online resource for members of the Fire Service and their families. The mission of Firestrong is to offer mental, emotional, and physical support to each member of the fire department and their families by providing educational tools, resources, crisis intervention assistance (crisis line) and peer support services.
Most who participate in the profession start off fit and at least close to reasonable weight standards. Unfortunately, many gain weight and find it difficult or impossible to lose weight. They struggle to maintain enough fitness to pass whatever testing may be required for continued service. The emphasis for many is to “protect their right” to continue in the service.
Many give up hope that they can lose weight and place themselves at great risk because they are over weight or obese. Here at “FireFightersWeightLoss.com” we understand and have experienced the problem.
Tongs and Turnouts is an Facebook page operated by a firefighter/brother in Australia. They provide amazing meal ideas for the fire station. Give them a follow and try to incorporate some of their practical and healthy meals with your shift. Every fireman loves a good feed! This page is to help share ‘Firies’ love of good food, and recipes for/from station cook ups.