Working in the fire service gives a sense of nobility; a purpose that goes beyond just “clocking in”. It is an established an honorable profession. Its members are a tight family, a brotherhood that unite when called upon. But being a member of this family comes at a price. It is not an easy road, nor is it always appealing. Images of the shining fire apparatus and polished uniforms are replaced with images of destroyed homes, patients with horrific burns, and vehicles that are twisted in unimaginable ways. Being a part of this family will change you in many ways. Finding a way to balance the good and the bad is imperative to keeping your head above the waters.

The struggles that a firefighter faces range from PTSD, job stress, and even addiction. The daily responsibilities of firefighting can go from the mundane to extreme adrenaline rushes in a matter of seconds. That yo-yo effect takes a toll on your mind and body. Some firefighters find themselves becoming on-edge, heart nearly jumping through their chest when the tones drop. This is a normal reaction for a brand new firefighter. But this symptom exhibited in a seasoned veteran can signal trouble. The physical demands are rigorous. From lifting heavy materials and equipment, moving heavy patients, to wrestling with the actual act of putting out flames, the physical aspects wear and tear on the body. Many firefighters work odd or long shifts. The most notorious is the 24/48 schedule. This is a very hard schedule for anyone, especially if your station stays busy. Also many have second jobs or work tremendous amounts of OT to support families, leaving little time for rest or regular exercise.

PTSD is prevalent in the fire service. Many assume it would be due to some catastrophic fire and any resulting injuries. This may be the case. But firefighters are witness to a multitude of traumatic events, any one of which could leave a mark. Medical emergencies, assaults, vehicle wrecks, and countless other scenarios play out on a daily basis. For those that respond, seeing that can become overwhelming. Injuries or fatalities to a coworker are one of the biggest causes of PTSD. Again, those in the fire service are a family. You depend on them to see you through the shift and they expect the same from you. Accidents happen. Tragedies happen. If you are involved in giving aid to your coworker following an injury, the impact will be even greater.  Feelings of guilt, anger, and self-doubt can pile up. Stuffing those feelings down will only make matters worse over time.

Many may think the words addiction and firefighting don’t go together. And they shouldn’t. But it is a high-stress job. Some firefighters turn to alcohol, others to pain medications. Many times it starts with a work related injury, and a legitimate prescription. But after a while it becomes something you feel you cannot live without. Fighting for balance between the addiction and functioning at your job becomes a daily battle. Some firefighters even struggle with addiction to steroids. Exercise and healthy diet choices somehow crosses over into the use of steroids. This addiction can be just as serious as any other.

According to a report from a Chicago news station, as of May 2014 there had been 21 firefighter suicides across the nation¹. In 2015 there were 100². These very men and women who have dedicated themselves to helping others reach a point where they feel no other option is present. While many departments have implemented various programs like critical debriefing and anonymous counseling, many firefighters feel it is a weakness to seek help or that they are in danger of being singled out if they step forward. For years the fire service has held an image of a brave figure. That is still true. But it is time for the superhuman mentality to come to an end. All firefighters are brave to do this job. But they are also all human. And the human mind, body, and spirit cannot be subjected to certain events without repercussions and the need for healing. Attitudes are slowly changing towards first responders with depression and addiction problems, but we still have a long way to go.

Signs and symptoms are a go-to for medical first responders. Fire fighters see smoke and know they have a sign of a fire. Depression has its own set of signs and symptoms. They vary from person to person and may not always be prevalent. A normally happy-go-lucky personality may start exhibiting a sour or restrained demeanor. Conversely, a quiet person may suddenly become extremely talkative. Lack of concern for appearance, health, and job performance are usually huge indications that something is out of the ordinary. Anger issues, loss of concentration, frequent headaches, and weight loss/gain can also be present.

If you notice a coworker struggling or think something may be wrong, talk to them. Do it in a non-judging and non-confrontational way. If they deny or refuse to talk, see if you can enlist someone you trust in the department. If you are the one struggling, seek help. You know the signs and symptoms. You know what the outcome will be if you don’t reach out. It isn’t weakness. The alternative is to continue on a destructive path. Suicide is not the answer. You will be surprised how many of your peers feel the same way as you or have experienced similar circumstances.

Station House Retreat is an option. You will be among your peers; men and women who have walked in your shoes. They understand the duties you perform and the toll it takes. They know what it’s like to spend so much time away from friends and loved ones. The staff gear discussions and groups around specific topics and subjects, not generic and non-specific. Your family can help you and receive support of their own along the way. You owe it to yourself to seek help. No shame and no guilt. Let someone help you so you can continue to help others.

 

 

¹Rogers, P. (2014). Firefighters Address Alarming Suicide Rate

http://www.nbcchicago.com/investigations/Firefighters-Address-Alarming-Suicide-Rates-258225891.html

²Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. 2015. http://www.ffbha.org/

 

 

 

¹Rogers, P. (2014). Firefighters Address Alarming Suicide Rate

http://www.nbcchicago.com/investigations/Firefighters-Address-Alarming-Suicide-Rates-258225891.html

²Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. 2015. http://www.ffbha.org/
²Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance. 2015. http://www.ffbha.org/

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