Behavioral Health in the Fire Service

Photo: Jeffrey Shamburger

Photo: Jeffrey Shamburger

“I wish my mind could forget what my eyes have seen.”
-- Dave Parnell, Detroit Fire Fighters Local 344 (ret.)                                                                          

For firefighters, going to work means knowing that a horrific, life-altering experience may be at the other end of a single 9-1-1 call.

Like veterans of wartime, firefighters must do their jobs in the midst of unimaginable stress – flames taller than a high-rise, violent and bloody scenes, even the life-and-death decisions of a single medic call.

For the men and women on the front lines, the effect of this relentless stress is real … and sometimes tragic.   In 2015, more firefighters committed suicide in the U.S. (132) than died of all job-related injuries and illnesses (115).  One Florida study revealed that nearly half of firefighters surveyed had thought about suicide and up to one in six had actually attempted suicide. New research is revealing difficulties with alcohol and substance abuse, family dysfunction and depression.

There’s a name for these types of symptoms. It’s been spoken in the military for years, and now it is becoming part of the health and wellness lexicon in the fire service: post-traumatic stress.

According to the Journal of Occupational Heath, one out of five firefighters have diagnosable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  The Texas-based Warriors Research Institute has found a direct connection between the traumatic situations experienced by firefighters and PTSD symptoms experienced by combat soldiers.  For some, serious post-traumatic stress can be triggered by a single call or catastrophic injury. For others, it’s the accumulated impact of decades of horror stories.

“The average person will experience these types of events once or twice in a lifetime,” said Warrior Institute researcher Dr. Suzy Gulliver. “Firefighters can have them as often as once a week.”

Many who have been impacted by this stress have suffered in silence, often victims of the culture of the fire service itself. In a profession built on trusting the person next to you, many have withheld anxieties from their colleagues out of fear that it would stigmatize them as being unable to handle the job.

“It’s very taboo to show weakness or that you’re not going to be able to be counted on when it hits the fan,” said Jeff Wells, a retired Sacramento Metro firefighter and Local 522 member. “So we tuck that stuff away and we don’t think it’s having an effect on us.”

As the advocates for rank-and-file firefighters, your unions – local, state and international – have taken up the challenge of bringing this critical issue out of the shadows and front and center with management … and our members.

This week, California Professional Firefighters is co-hosting a two-day behavioral health summit with Cal-JAC and the California Fire Chiefs Assn. More than 250 fire service professionals -- labor and management -- will hear from the best minds in the field on issues ranging from family impacts to peer support. They’ll also hear from folks on the front lines working to deal with the threat, including those in charge of running the state’s Workers’ Compensation system.

Most importantly, they will hear the stories of brothers and sisters for whom post-traumatic stress is not an abstraction but a daily struggle.

“Just as we fought for recognition of firefighters’ cancer risks, we feel we owe it to our members to press this issue with management and with our entire profession,” said CPF President Lou Paulson. “We think behavioral health is the firefighter health and safety issue of the 21st Century.”

Follow the conference: and on Facebook & Twitter