Firefighters and first responders struggle with substance abuse at higher rates than the general population.
Specialized treatment is available to address trauma and other issues that are unique to firefighters in recovery from addiction.
Firefighters are among the heroes of our nation. They courageously protect families and homes, treasured lands, businesses, individuals, and even animals — all without any guarantee of their own safety.
Many people may not realize how vital the work of a firefighter is until their home, life, or community is in danger and saved by the selfless men and women who dedicate their lives to fighting fires and stopping disasters.
Firefighters face great risk every day on the job. Whether reporting to a house fire, traveling to an out-of-control wildfire, or responding to another type of emergency, a firefighter never knows what they’ll encounter. They may be hurt on the job, or even lose their life. They may suffer smoke inhalation, witness the death or injury of a colleague or civilian, or be unable to stop a disaster from occurring.
In addition to these risks — perhaps, in part, due to these risks — many firefighters face another danger as well: substance addiction.
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Just as each individual is unique, each individual’s struggle with substance abuse and addiction is unique as well. Of course, firefighters are no exception. Certain aspects of a career in firefighting, or even ongoing volunteer work as a firefighter, may make this population more vulnerable to addiction and substance problems.
Some factors that may make firefighters at higher risk for substance use and addiction include:
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that sometimes occurs after someone experiences a traumatic event and is then left with long-lasting symptoms that interfere with their ability to function in everyday life. Symptoms of PTSD include recurring and/or involuntary memories or nightmares, avoidance of trauma-related thoughts, and persistent negative emotions. Because of the nature of their jobs, firefighters are exposed to high levels of trauma.
They may witness violent crime scenes, provide medical support to severely injured children and infants, and see victims of a disaster or crime die in front of them. The frequency of these incidents may explain why firefighters are more likely to experience PTSD than those in many other professions.
Although there have been studies examining the connection between PTSD and firefighters, many feel more research should be done on the effects of repeated exposure trauma (RET) on firefighters. While PTSD is linked to one traumatic event, RET is the effect of continuously and repeatedly being exposed to trauma and stress.
According to the U.S. Fire Administration, levels of depression are higher in firefighters than in the general population, perhaps due to job stress and trauma exposure.
Many firefighters have an irregular work schedule, and they often work long hours in rough conditions. Firefighters battling a wildfire, for example, may work in poor air quality, through long shifts without needed breaks.
These factors can make firefighters susceptible to “burnout,” a condition the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines by the following characteristics:
Because PTSD is so often part of the equation when dealing with a firefighter who is struggling with substance addiction, understanding the symptoms of PTSD may help to identify a potential problem.
Signs that a firefighter may be struggling with substance use and addiction include:
Most studies involving firefighters and substance addiction have focused on alcohol use. More research may be needed to determine which drugs and substances are most commonly used.
Because many firefighters suffer from injuries, for example, some may use painkillers, which can be addictive. Many prescription anxiety medications may also be addictive.
Substance use and addiction can be incredibly dangerous for a firefighter’s safety on the job. Substance abuse can severely and negatively affect their job performance.
An office worker may be able to get away with “zoning out” at the office, but a firefighter must be fully alert and engaged every moment they are on the job. Their lives, and the lives of their colleagues and the people they’re trying to save depend on it.
Substance use and addiction can lead to dangerous on-the-job mistakes, slower response times, and bad decision-making. These factors can be the difference between life and death when it comes to a burning building or other disasters.
Many firefighters struggling with addiction may be able to hide their problem better than most. After all, the job requires an extraordinary level of control over one’s emotions and actions.
Eventually, however, the physical and psychological toll of addiction will catch up with even the most disciplined and skilled professionals. Work performance will decline. The behaviors associated with addiction may cause the individual to develop a reputation for unpredictability, poor judgment, and suspicious personal habits. These are all traits that can stop a firefighter’s career right in its tracks.
There is an increasing awareness of the stress and demands placed on a first responder. A firefighter who genuinely wants to stop their substance abuse and completes a comprehensive treatment program should be able to expect the support and respect of their colleagues and leadership.
There are many different types of firefighters in this country. Some may be employed by their city’s fire department; others may work as contractors or volunteer firefighters in their community.
Depending on a firefighter’s relationship with their team or leadership, they may be able to access resources and support for addiction recovery.
Because of the increased awareness of the stresses and trauma faced by firefighters, many cities and fire organizations are offering more support to their first responders. Some are now encouraging peer support groups, both on the job and after hours.
Some are also trying to erase the stigma often associated with firefighters seeking help for psychological or substance problems.
After the devastating fire season of 2018, for example, CalFire, labor organizers, counselors, and fire chiefs throughout California worked together and committed to offering more resources and support to firefighters.
Firefighters face continual stress and trauma in their work life. Without tools to process and cope with these events and feelings, substances like alcohol can seem like an appealing escape from unwanted thoughts and memories.
But using substances and battling addiction can lead down a dangerous path that can put their own lives, as well as the lives of others, at risk. It can also cost firefighters their career.
Fortunately, there is a greater understanding today of the struggles firefighters face. More resources are available to help firefighters fully recover from addiction and mental health issues. These offerings address the unique challenges firefighters face, treating associated issues like PTSD in conjunction with substance abuse.
Firefighters face higher rates of addiction and suicide than many other populations. If you suspect a firefighter you know is struggling with mental health problems or substance use issues, point them toward treatment resources and offer your support. It may save their life.
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(March 2019) Must Reads: Firefighter Suicides Reflect Toll of Longer Fire Seasons and Increased Stress. Nina Agrawal. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved August 2019 from https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-firefighter-suicides-20190302-story.html