Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is sometimes called the invisible wound. PTSD represents one illness that has varying degrees of symptoms. Most firefighters and other first responders are susceptible to getting PTSD because it’s caused by a stressful, frightening, or distressful event, or prolonged exposure to traumatic experiences. All people have various levels of emotional resilience, which is why some firefighters are more susceptible to acquiring PTSD than some other firefighters. Just as military personnel may have little or no exposure to trauma depending on their job assignments, firefighters also have disparate levels of resilience based on their level of exposure to trauma and their bodies’ ability to process traumatic events.
Wildland Firefighters Have a Greater Risk of PTSD Than Stationhouse Firefighters
Wildland firefighters may have greater risk for PTSD because of their increased exposure to stress. Climatic changes are creating conditions that make firefighting seasons longer, which means that firefighters are exposed to traumatic experiences for longer periods of time. Wildland firefighters have rigorous schedules which often have them working for 14 days in a row before they get a couple of days off. Firefighters who fight wild fires usually also work long hours like double shifts. Exhaustion combined with severe stress increases the frequency and intensity of PTSD in firefighters.
Wildland Firefighters Are Exposed to Multiple Types of Stress
Many firefighters report feeling a rush of adrenalin, thrill, or excitement when they receive word that they are called to respond to a wildland fire. The adrenalin rush wears off once firefighters begin to feel exhaustion after long hours of duty. They then begin to experience the effects of stress.
Wildland fires have a regular season, but firefighters can’t know exactly when they will be called to respond. The uncertainty of the timing creates tension because there’s no adequate way to be prepared at all times. Wildland firefighters can be away from home for many months, causing them to miss out on family birthdays, anniversaries, and other celebrations. Being away from home makes it difficult for wildland firefighters to maintain healthy relationships with children, spouses, extended family members, and friends.
The uncertainty of timing also makes it difficult to plan for events, concerts, or vacations because they don’t know when they’ll have to leave at a moments’ notice or for how long they’ll be gone.
Personal stress leads to emotional and physical stress. Chronic exposure to fear and trauma causes wildland firefighters to feel overwhelmed. Firefighters also worry about the situation becoming dangerously out of control and losing comrades or their own lives. Those who choose to fight wildfires constantly fear getting trapped or losing their lives to extreme heat.
In 2013, 19 hot-shot firefighters lost their lives in a box canyon in Prescott, Arizona in wildfire conditions where temperatures soared up to 2,000 degrees. Their fellow firefighters, families of the victims, and the greater community continue to grieve their loss.
All firefighters endure extreme physical duress in carrying heavy protective equipment, hoses, and other equipment. Wildland firefighters experience even greater physical stress as they dig lines and carry chainsaws and other heavy equipment. Emergency calls in certain areas may require them to hike for long distances over rough terrain. The stress on their bodies often causes cuts, scrapes, burns, and muscle strain. Continually breathing in smoke causes breathing problems like bronchitis and sinus problems.
Heat, smoke and fire are continual firefighter challenges. Many firefighters succumb to heat stress, heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and heat cramps.
Still other stressors come from wildland firefighter peers. Stamina and heroism are esteemed and expected when fighting fires in the wilderness. Stronger members of the team give weaker members flack when they need to take time off for family or personal time, even when supervisors approve it. Peers often place guilt trips on firefighters that need to return home temporarily or permanently.
Because they are placing their lives in the hands of their peers, many firefighting crews view their team as family. It’s common for crew members to prioritize the needs of the crew over the needs of the firefighter’s true family members.
Pursuing Health Coping Strategies Over Unhealthy Coping Activities
Trauma catches many firefighters off-guard. As a result, they find unhealthy ways for coping with feeling stressed and hypervigilant. It’s common for wildland firefighters to isolate themselves from family and friends. Many of them self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. The ideals of heroism and peer culture make many firefighters reluctant to seek helpful therapy and support groups.
A 2014 study of current wildland firefighter dispatchers showed the kinds of things that helped them cope with the unique kinds of stress in their field. The study included 11 wildland firefighter dispatchers, all who had extensive experience. Researches conducted personal interviews of the candidates, which consisted of six females and five males. Subjects had an average of 14.2 years’ experience in the field. The results identified the following four things that the dispatchers found helpful:
- Time off
- Providing funding and access to therapeutic services to firefighters
- Receiving support from others
Researchers agree that additional studies in the area of workplace stressors for wildland firefighters and dispatchers will be helpful to identify appropriate coping strategies in this field.
Frontline Responder Services, a program of Sprout Health, offers counselors with first-person experience dealing with job-related stress in the field of emergency services. All counselors are either active or retired first responders, who understand how debilitating stress can be. There’s no need for wildland firefighters to suffer in silence.
Firefighters and their families know that job-related stress and PTSD among their colleagues look a bit differently than military stress. The effects of PTSD vary in severity and the types of symptoms. Many factors, especially a firefighter’s level of resilience, play into the prevalence of the number of firefighters who become affected. Senses and situations can trigger PTSD symptoms unexpectedly and without warning.
Firefighters that work in the field long-term need to pay special attention to their physical, emotional, and mental health, just as if they were running a marathon rather than a sprint. The careers of firefighters take just as much of a toll on their bodies as a well-trained athlete.
Mark W Lamplugh Jr
Mark Lamplugh is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He was the Chief Executive Officer of 360 Wellness Inc and currently the Vice President of Responder Services of Frontline Responder Services at Advanced Health & Education and Cedar Point Recovery. Lamplugh is also nationally recognized in Crisis Stress Intervention through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Lamplugh hosts his own talk show called "Firefighter Wellness Radio" with Fire Engineering. He has helped thousands of firefighters, police officers, veterans, EMS personnel, and civilians nationwide find help for addiction, alcoholism, PTSD, and mental health support. Mark has been chosen as one of the Board of Directors at One World For Life (To head up Communication and the Health & Safety section). He can be reached for comment firstname.lastname@example.org.