Working in the fire service gives a sense of nobility; a purpose that goes beyond just “clocking in.” It is an established honorable profession. Its members are a tight family, a brotherhood that unites when called upon. However, 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. However, 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 extended shifts. The most notorious is the 24/48 schedule. This is a tight 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. However, 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 this 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 more significant. 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 do not go together. In a perfect world, they should not. However, 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. However, 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 cross over into the use of steroids. This addiction can be just as dangerous as any other.
According to a study from the Ruderman foundation in 2017 93 firefighters died in the Line of Duty and 103 took their own lives. 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 heroic figure. That is still true. However, it is time for the superhuman mentality to come to an end. All firefighters are brave to do this job. However, they are also all human. So 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. Firefighters 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 usually 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 do not reach out. It is not a 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.
If you are struggling or have questions, the Institute for Responder Wellness is an option. It is a non-profit first responder resource available nationwide.
If you are looking for a free recovery group for first responders then check out Lionrock Recovery's Thin Line Recovery Group. It's the online responder group for behavioral and mental health issues responders can attend online from the privacy of their home.
Photos By Paul Combs
About The Author
Mark Lamplugh is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. Mark is President of the board for the Institute for Responder Wellness. Mark owns Influence Media Solutions which is his own Marketing, Public Relations, Digital Marketing, Branding, Business Development and Social Media company. He advises companies such as Lionrock Recovery about first responder programs.. He just published his first book “Beginners Guide to Digital & Social Media” which is available on Amazon. Mark is a professional advocate for the behavioral and mental health of firefighters and other first responders. He’s been involved in the creation of several responder specific treatment programs and is one of the leading experts in bringing these programs to responders. Lamplugh hosts his own talk show called "Firefighter Wellness Radio". He has published dozens of articles on responder wellness topics and is recognized by the American Acadamy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. He has helped hundreds of responders with getting help for behavioral & mental health issues. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org