At bars, restaurants and homes across America, many adults enjoy alcoholic beverages responsibly. However, there are those for whom drinking becomes a deadly addiction that sours personal and professional relationships and endangers lives. It’s no small number, either – according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, nearly 18 million adults have an alcohol use disorder.
Firefighters are disproportionately affected. Among the 112 career firefighters surveyed in the study “Sleep Problems, Depression, Substance Use, Social Bonding, and Quality of Life in Professional Firefighters,” 80% used alcohol (averaging about one to two drinks per day), 56% binge drank (four or more drinks for men; three or more drinks for women) and 14% binge drank multiple times per week. Compare that to the general population, where 55% have had one drink or more in the past month and 17% binge drank.
Departments are seeing the very real effect of this. Over-consumption of alcohol negatively impacts physical fitness and mental acuity on a day-to-day basis, but it can also result in capable, valued firefighters quitting with years of service still left in them.
In fact, “37% of respondents [in the study “Alcoholism and Firefighters: An Intervention Strategy” by the National Fire Academy] reported a resignation of a firefighter over the past two years due to alcohol-related problems.”
That’s no way to end an otherwise promising career.
Causes of Alcoholism
Part of the cause of alcohol abuse among firefighters may be the perception that alcohol use across the department is more widespread than it actually is.
According to “Alcohol Use, Exercise and Physical Fitness Among Firefighters”, a study by Anna Gardner at the University of Florida, “The mean response for the item ‘How many drinks do you think the typical firefighter at your station had the last time he/she drank?’ was 6.04 (± 4.4) drinks.”
Fortunately, that figure isn’t anywhere near the reality – in this study, three to four drinks per occasion was the average. But the over-estimation is certainly telling of attitudes toward drinking and could, in itself, inspire more drinking.
“Regardless of your personal attitude towards a behavior, you are more likely to partake in the behavior if the key referent group with which you identify yourself supports the behavior, or you perceive this referent group to support the behavior,” the study adds, citing Social Identity Theory.
This is particularly true of younger recruits. “Time of service was also a statistically significant covariate of binge drinking,” researchers found. “The longer the time of service, the less likely a firefighter was to binge drink.” In some cases, drinking is a part of an attempt to fit in in a profession that “values identity and places high importance on group cohesion.”
Stress can also play a major role in the development of an alcohol use disorder. Researchers Samuel Bacharach, Peter Bamberger and Etti Doveh confirmed “a link between the intensity of firefighters’ involvement in critical incidents and drinking to cope,” and studies show that between 30% and 50% of American men and slightly greater than 25% of women with PTSD have had dependence problems in their lives.
With the combination of alcohol use and PTSD dramatically increasing the risk of suicide and self-harm, effective intervention and treatment are vitally important.
When to Intervene: Signs of an Alcohol Abuse Disorder
How do you know if a drinking habit has gotten out of hand? Familiarizing yourself with the signs of an alcohol abuse disorder will help you act sooner rather than later.
The following questions were put together by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. While they are not intended to diagnose alcoholism, a few too many yeses could be grounds for an intervention. Have you…
- More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
- Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the aftereffects?
- Experienced craving — a strong need, or urge, to drink?
- Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
- Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
- Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
- More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
- Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
- Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
- Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not there?
How to Help an Alcoholic Firefighter: Treatment
A department that is vigilant about identifying the symptoms of an alcohol use disorder ought to be just as good at treating them. According to Samuel Bacharach, Peter Bamberger and Etti Doveh, firefighters’ “psychological responses to critical incident involvement may depend on the adequacy of unit-level resources, with members of units with less adequate resources being more vulnerable to distress and distress-related sequelae, such as drinking to cope, than members of units with more adequate resources.”
At Station House Retreat, we believe that Peer Support Treatment is essential for a return to health and an avoidance of relapse. Where we differ from normal addiction treatment programs, however, is in the common background of our peers and staff and our ability to meet our clients’ unique needs.
Members of a Station House Retreat peer support group aren’t simply strangers bonded by an unhealthy addiction to alcohol – they’re also firefighters, police officers, EMTs, dispatchers, and correctional officers, and they have their own culture, code and values. By surrounding clients with patients and professional staff of similar backgrounds, the client will be more receptive to treatment, leading to better outcomes. We’re one of the only programs in the country that offers this level of support exclusively to first responders.
In our evidence-based, task model approach to treatment, clients overcome specific obstacles and learn to manage their emotions and lives without the need for alcohol. The program typically takes 30 to 60 days, depending on the recommendations of our highly qualified, clinical team. We also provide an aftercare plan, ensuring the client’s home community has the resources they need to ensure continued progress.
For more on receiving help for an alcohol abuse disorder, see our Peer Support Treatment page.