Firefighters are heroes – putting their lives on the line to help people in need. The risk doesn’t just stop at physical harm, and even the strongest and bravest among us can be deeply shaken by the horrors witnessed in the line of duty.
The Physical Impact
Firefighters, like athletes, can only work for so long before age becomes a factor in their performance – and the demands of the job can cause untoward strain on their bodies. Smoke inhalation and exposure to chemicals can contribute to respiratory ailments and cancer, and burns are a risk at every incident. Many of the physical health issues faced by firefighters don’t manifest until later in life.
During structure fires, there will always be a point where a firefighter has to enter the building; either to perform an interior attack on the flames, to perform a rescue or to survey for remnants of fire after completing a successful exterior attack.
All of these scenarios carry risks – and structure collapse can affect those working from the exterior, too. Urban firefighters in dense city locations will encounter structure fires often. In many cases, firefighters act as the first responders to tragic scenes. This is arguably the most painful and life-changing aspect of being a firefighter, and it’s important to know how profoundly it can impact their lives.
Mental Trauma and PTSD in Firefighters
The cost of being a first responder is high. Police, paramedics and firefighters are the first people to arrive at major incidents, entering developing scenarios. These are extremely stressful situations with an ongoing danger to life, where seconds count and even minor choices could end up costing lives. That’s an unimaginable burden for most people to fathom carrying.
In the throes of an unfolding emergency, panic ensues and can quickly take control of a scene. A first responder has internalise their own panic, to conduct themselves professionally and effectively, even in a crisis. Death is to be expected, as are burns and other horrifying injuries. Witnessing these things happen in person is life-changing; it can trigger extreme episodes of poor mental health, but it may be a substantial amount of time before the trauma manifests itself. It’s usually very difficult to pin the damage on one event without exploration, counselling and therapy.
A 1998 study on German firefighters revealed that over 18% of firefighters were showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Over a quarter suffered with mental health issues. In 2016, the International Association of Fire Fighters showed that PTSD in firefighters rivaled the rates of PTSD in combat veterans.
Symptoms and Treatment
PTSD can present itself in several ways:
Re-experiencing the event
Nightmares, flashbacks or feeling the same emotions as the actual event.
Avoiding situations that trigger the event
Avoiding talking about the event, watching films or media similar to the event.
Having negative thoughts and feelings because of the trauma
Chronic depression, a negative outlook on life and relationships.
Extreme stress – on edge and easily startled.
People experiencing PTSD may not know it. It can look and feel like anxiety and depression, and those two mental health conditions are interlinked: each can affect the other. PTSD can compound or trigger these conditions, and can exist alongside them undetected. Things get difficult in diagnosis, because it requires participation from the person affected, and those unwilling to speak about their trauma (which is common) may go undiagnosed until there’s an intervention of some sort.
Treatment can come in many forms, but therapies like CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) are proven to be effective and are recommended courses of treatment. Again, therapy and counselling require that the participant opens up – they’ll only get out what they put in.
There is hope in these treatments – and while it might never go away fully, it can and will get better with talking and with time.
We so often talk about the devastation that fire can wage on buildings and their occupants. But the impact of fire on firefighters can’t be overlooked. That’s why we’ll always push forward with our fire safety training, our research and development of cutting-edge fire curtains – and our bespoke designs to retrofit modern fire safety in historic buildings, to make everyone, firefighters included, safer.
Fire Safety is Our Priority
Our expertise has led Coopers Fire to become a leader in fire safety. For more information on our educational training courses or our non-intrusive, life-saving fire and smoke protection, call us on 02392 454 405 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.