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PTSD: It's Not Just for those in the Military... How Fire Fighters Are Affected

Posted by on 5/29/2014 to Fire Fighting

Over the last few decades, a mental and emotional disorder has come to the forefront with military personnel, especially those who came out of Vietnam and either of the two Gulf Wars.  Our wounded warriors are more prevalent than we think, as it has been determined that just going through a war zone and being exposed to such a high-stress environment can lead to mental and emotional wounds that are difficult to heal.

This has been labeled PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, which has seemed to affect military personnel significantly - though in recent years it has also been spotted in others who have no military background bur rather are found to be in stressful work environments. 

Certainly one class of worker that regularly encounters stressful situations and traumatic events are firefighters, and it turns out that PTSD by some estimations is very prevalent among those who protect us all. One study suggested that PTSD could be present in as many as nearly two in five firefighters, and as few as one in 10. 

The problem is that, with firefighters tending to be a prideful sort, some of the PTSD cases go undiagnosed and thus untreated because these men and women don't generally ask for help. They tend to just deal with their issues on their own. What also affects the percentage of PTSD cases are the numbers of volunteer firefighters vs. paid; i fyou count volunteers as firefighters alongside their paid brethren, then the percentage is easily closer to 40 percent.

PTSD Risk Factors for Fire Fighters

There have been several factors identified in firefighters that seem to increase the risk of an individual firefighter developing PTSD, and some of these risk indicators are:

  • Becoming a firefighter at a young age;
  • Being single;
  • Having a supervisory role in fire company;
  • Having fearful feelings during a traumatic episode;
  • Witnessing death during a trauma; and
  • Expressing hostility to others.

Things Fire Fighters and Their Families Can Do to Prevent PTSD

When looking at this risk indicators above, it would seem that a majority of firefighters would have PTSD or develop it. But the numbers aren't worse for a couple of factors that seem to insulate many from developing the disorder.

One of the most prominent protections for those at risk of PTSD - whether they are firefighters, military personnel, or anyone else - is a social support network. This can be family members and friends or just co-workers fi a person does not have much of a social network. 

Having the support of others, especially after experiencing a trauma or multiple traumas (as often happens on a single shift), such as having friends over for a barbecue, or co-workers going out for a beer after a shift, or having a regular card game or game night with family, can often make or break a person in the battle against PTSD.

The other important factor is having an environment that encourages firefighters to get help from professionals when possible - especially if there was an especially traumatic event during a shift. Firefighters need an opportunity to escape and deal with the trauma in a proper way; oftentimes, just having them suit up for the next shift and focus on the work at hand does not deal with the trauma. It just delays the closure, and might actually make things worse in the long run. 

As a supervisor, you don't have to force firefighters to get help, but providing an environment where it's OK for them to ask for help or make them comfortable seeking support can be very beneficial and help provide more productive and focused workers - which can then save lives. Including their own.

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