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Are Volunteer Firefighters at Greater Risk of PTSD?

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.

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Amazing artwork by DanSunPhotos

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 Photo Credit: Boston Globethe 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 5147f8aefb04d672c4001820._w.540_s.fit_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 Share load greenevery 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.