Just mentioning the words Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD probably has you running for the hills right now but trust me, it doesn’t have to be a scary subject. Every firefighter in this world is willing to take on any risk to save another person’s life. Sometimes that risk means witnessing or engaging in a crisis that would be unthinkable for the average Joe on the street to handle. You jump in on someone’s worst day of his or her life and at times risk your life for the sake of theirs. With that said, sad to say it, but that means you have witnessed a traumatic event. When you witness a traumatic event, it puts you at risk for developing PTSD. It puts you at greater risk to develop PTSD when you continuously witness traumatic events. It probably sounds a lot like your day-to-day life as a firefighter, endlessly witnessing trauma.
There is such limited information out there to let you know what the stats say about PTSD amongst firefighters. The most consistent, predicted number out there says that about 37% of firefighters show signs or symptoms of PTSD. You would think that number would be higher since it is pretty safe to say that 100% of you witness at least one traumatic event throughout the course of your career. You’re probably laughing right now because that number is probably way higher than one.
Whether it was by choice or by chance, the way that a firehouse is set up, and the way that your schedule works is a protective factor that reduces your risk to develop PTSD. Protective factors are a fancy way of saying that there is something in place that helps you reduce the risk of developing PTSD. Psychologists, actually let’s call them head docs; they had to develop a fancy way to say it that sounded smart. It looks better in our field when we sound smart.
So let’s look at what these protective factors are and how you can rely on them to process through any traumatic event that you might come across. Because let’s face it, the next alarm that goes off could lead you right into someone’s worst day and your next call might be the one that is hard to forget. Your next call might be the one that plays over and over in your mind. Your next call might be the one that wakes you up at night in a pool of sweat. You never know what the next call is.
So what about these protective factors makes the risk of PTSD lower for firefighters? The fact that you live in the firehouse with the same people that are going through the same trauma with you, that in itself allows you to process events in a healthy way. You are side by side with the same people day in and day out, and they are someone with whom you can relate. You eat, sleep, shower, and who knows what else goes on in there but regardless, you do this with one another. If you were to experience an incident and then immediately return home to your family, it would make it harder to process it fully and effectively because they didn’t live the incident with you. The other protective factor is your schedule, as much as your wife, girlfriend, partner, might hate your schedule, it is a protective factor. When you work these long hours, it means that your support system is right there with you and that helps.
I know many of you think that you are invincible but even though you aren’t the average Joe, you still breathe and bleed just as they do. So just because these protective factors are in place, doesn’t mean you are invincible to developing PTSD. You should know the warning signs and talk to someone about it. Really quick. Here are some down and dirty signs to look for: If you are experiencing panic attacks, feeling numb towards emotions, difficulty concentrating, frequent nightmares, feeling extra stress or anxiousness, flashbacks to the event that feel real, or even memory loss, you might need to find someone to talk to about it. These are just some quick signs that should trigger you to dig a little deeper and see if everything is alright.
So turning to someone for help doesn’t mean you are weak, it means you are human. If you think things don’t feel right, you should listen to your body and talk to someone. At the end of the day, the world needs you and needs you to take care of yourself.