Station Pride Articles

Are Volunteer Firefighters at Greater Risk of PTSD?

We recently published an article that identified some of the protective factors that help reduce the risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in career firefighters (here) but what about the risk of PTSD with those of you that are volunteer firefighters?

The National Fire Protection Association reported that there were “approximately 1,140,750 firefighters in the U.S. in 2013. Of the total number of firefighters 354,600 (31%) were career firefighters and 786,150 (69%) were volunteer firefighters.” (NFPA, 2014).

That is a huge number of you that volunteer day in and day out to interrupt your normal life at work or home at a moment’s notice and jump at the call to help your community. How do you go from responding to a call one minute and then immediately go back to whatever it was you were doing before you raced to the fire station? Unless you found this magic on/off switch on your body somewhere, (if you did, you should patent that right away), you can’t just shut it all off and go back to your life as it was right before a difficult call.

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Amazing artwork by DanSunPhotos

Many small town America fire departments can sometimes barely afford the equipment you need just to function let alone fund the support you would need following a horrific call.

This one hits home for me because I can remember like it was yesterday hearing my father’s pager go off in the next room, alerting not only him but the entire family that there was a crisis in our small town that needing rescuing. I can still hear the front door slam shut and hear his footsteps pound the sidewalk as he started to run the block down the hill to the volunteer fire station. Each time that pager went off, the men that volunteered for our small town quickly tossed off their hat of being a construction worker, farmer, banker, and ran to put on a helmet and gear. You always knew that our volunteer fire department was out there saving the day when you saw all the haphazardly parked cars and trucks belonging to our firefighters scattered along the street downtown. They got to the station as fast as possibly, never knowing what crisis was awaiting them, never knowing if they were rushing to help a neighbor, a friend or even a family member.

So, you put your life on the line as a volunteer, and your community would feel your absence if you weren’t there, right?   Why is there such limited information out there on how this drastically impacts your mental well-being?

It appears that there has been a total of two, that’s right two studies on the effects of trauma on volunteer firefighters. It took a grad student in Ontario, Canada to publish one of them in 2010. Brad Campbell, a Seguin Township resident, a graduate of Photo Credit: Boston Globethe School of Social Work at Laurentian University, conducted a two-year study of nine volunteer firefighters to help figure out how big of a problem this really is. His thesis can’t even be found online to see what this 95-page book says because it is probably tucked away on some dusty library shelf in Ontario. The big take away from his two-year study was this: volunteer firefighting psychological trauma remains overlooked.
I don’t think that comes as a surprise to most of you. If you are interested in reading the super short article about that, you can find it here.

Sometimes it doesn’t just stop at PTSD either.

The effects of PTSD can lead to even bigger and more permanent problems, such as taking your own life.

The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance (FBHA) is currently tracking the number of suicides each year for all firefighters, both volunteer, and career. Last year alone there were 112 suicides. Since the FBHA started tracking this information in 2012, there has been a total of 754 suicides.

We are talking about 754 avoidable firefighter deaths. Many of these suicides could have been prevented if there was help readily available, easily accessible, and perhaps even required.  You can find more of this research at FBHA.

The reality here?

A volunteer firefighter has an increased chance of struggling with PTSD. It could be assumed that the volunteer has an even greater chance than that of a career firefighter 5147f8aefb04d672c4001820._w.540_s.fit_because the protective factors are not in place as they are with career firefighters.

Now imagine responding to call where a teenager has been ejected from a vehicle, you are first one scene, and the teen is a mangled corpse. You place her human remains into a body bag, finish the call, and return home to wash the blood off your clothes just in time to enjoy dinner with your family and the 6:00 news.

This scenario, which is common among volunteer firefighters, highlights the need for intervention. Encourage your volunteer fire department to take the initiative for all their members. PTSD support should be a priority for every department.

PTSD isn’t about what’s wrong with you, it’s about what happened to you.

There are resources out there for volunteers. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) has teamed up with the American Addictions Center (AAC) to offer you and your family a free and confidential helpline. You can call 1-888-731-FIRE 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year. The person that answers the phone knows what you are going through, has been there, and has the resources to help you. You can also access more help, training, and resources for not only you but your entire department by visiting http://www.nvfc.org/.

There are a lot of you out there. Each and Share load greenevery one of you deserves to be taken care of just as you take care of your friends, your neighbors, members of your community, and complete strangers.
At the end of the day, this isn’t a new problem. PTSD is an issue that has existed since the dawn of firefighting and other traumatic events. The psychological impacts just haven’t been fully considered until recently. It seems;  however, there is a stronger focus on career firefighters while less of an open and verbal concern for volunteers.

You answer the call to help others at a moment’s notice, and many of you may believe that since you are there to help others, you can’t reach out for help yourself. You don’t have to be a statistic; you can get the help you need. Talk to someone, talk to anyone, your life is just as valuable as the person you are rescuing when the alarm goes off.

PTSD is real, and it needs everyone’s attention.

About Ashley Brehm MS, MFT, NCC (5 Articles)
Ashley is a National Certified Counselor. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Social Work, a Masters of Science in Marital and Family Therapy, and a Masters of Science in Nonprofit Management and Philanthropy. Ashley has respectable experience working with trauma therapy, recovery, rehabilitation, co-occurring disorders, crisis support, crisis intervention and crisis response. Ashley comes from a Firefighter family in Iowa and possesses intimate exposure to the world of firefighting. She currently lives in Connecticut where she works for a non-profit agency assisting families and as a Mental Health Clinician. Ashley has a passion for restoring antique furniture and curling up on the couch with her dog Bailey.

12 Comments on Are Volunteer Firefighters at Greater Risk of PTSD?

  1. My names justin. Ive been a vol ff for almost 10 years starting as a jr at the age of 15 in south western PA i have recently heard about this ptsd thing for ff read into it talked to a phyc major friend of mine about it. I have reoccurring nightmares of the same male my first doa call at the age of 17. Which i wake up after. not all the time but sometimes in server anxiety attacks feelings of a false reality like im seeing the world but its not real an altered perspective. Dread alot voices sometimes when im in bed when i close my eyes i see faces some i know some i dont. Anyway could someone give me some in sight here its been happening for awhile only recently as is gotten worse idk where to turn just really looking for if it sounds like ptsd if so where do i go what do i do can it be fixed? Thanks

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    • In a recent article, we talked about some of the signs and symptoms of PTSD: “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.” These are not all the signs and symptoms, so if you want a little more information about PTSD, you can look at this resource online as well:
      http://www.helpguide.org/articles/ptsd-trauma/post-traumatic-stress-disorder.htm. This site will also explain a few different ways professionals can help you, it isn’t all just about medication, there are plenty of resources besides that to help.

      Also, if you have a primary care doctor, you can schedule an appointment with them and they can help connect you with someone in your area that can offer support as well. I hope this gives you somewhere to start.

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  2. Peter Kreutzfeldt // January 18, 2016 at 9:27 am // Reply

    I’m a Viet Nam veteran with 3 tours behind me. Do I have PTSD? I have no clue. I have demons that come and visit me from time to time. It’s been almost 50 years since Viet Nam for me, but I spend 30 Years as a full time Fire Fighter. The smells and sounds of a fire are about the same as the sounds and smells of Combat.
    I did all the things the Veterans Administration indicated would help me with my demons. They were all wrong. It was not until I met a pastor in the VA that addressed PTSD and it’s related problems entirely different. He did not address PTSD from a religious approach rather from logical and methodical bases. He showed us were we were, were we are and were we want to be and it made sense to me and others.
    Municipalities will distance them selves from Fire Fighters with a diagnosis of job related PTSD.
    The resulting cost and obligations to them would be prohibitive. But it is essential that somebody monitor and deal with Fire Fighters PTSD, it will become one big bag of problems.
    I obtained a degree in Behavioral Science after leaving the military. It helped a lot but diagnosing and treating one self is never a good idea. Self medication via alcohol has not helped any of my friends and I have seen a lot of it in the 30 year fire service.

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  3. Its amazing the things we overlook sometimes….after all they would have the same issues.

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  4. shawn burnley // January 24, 2016 at 11:19 pm // Reply

    Justin I would talk to your chief or staff officer to get you someone to speak with. Please don’t ignore these things as they become worse as time goes on if not dealt with in a positive manner. My dept has recently dealt with a medical that turned into a homicide case and all that goes with it. One of my officers needed some help in dealing with the “what if” game. He spoke to someone and he is getting the help he needs. You are not alone brother.

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  5. Ive been a Volunteer & Career firefighter going on 41 years, as one gentleman stated he experienceed demons. After doing CPR on my Best Mans daughter with his Mom calling my name to save her, those demons appeared. This past year, death became an unfortunate part of my life. My Father passed away in April, a Police Officer who was a good friend drowned on his vacation in June, a local Hero got killed in Iraq in July (I live in a small close knit community), a co-worker and our Deputy Chief died in a horrific MVA in which I was the IC, and I lost my Mom in November only after 6 months after my Father passed. It was when our Deputy got killed that all my demons came to haunt me. That weekend we got together as families do and consoled each other. Yes, there was food and beer at all of these gatherings and it was easier to nub the pain than to confront it. I was very moody and began to bite my wifes head off just for her looking at me. Until a Saturday night when we were at a fire station gathering, I went off alone and started hitting the booze hard. My brothers were trying to talk to me but I found myself staring off into space until I walked into the room where they all were, someone said something to me and I just started to cry very loudly. Then next morning, I picked up the pamphlet from the peer group that had visited us the night the Deputy was killed. When I read the pamphlet, I though ” shit, this is me”, so I sent a text to the councelor asking her to call me when she could and within 10 minutes my phone was ringing. We talked about my experiences of 2015 and just when we were ready to hang up, I said wait one more…. I told her about my Best Mans daughter. At that point, I felt those demons leaving. My point is, dont try to be a tough guy like I thought I was, I carried that little girls death with me for over 6 years, and unfortunately it took others deaths to shake it off. So my brothers and sisters, get help and talk to someone if you had a bad call and dont try to “tough it out ” like I did.

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  6. While the stresses of volunteer firefighting are not to be underplayed having done both I would not say it is more stressful; you are still able to pick and choose your calls and most VFDs run fewer calls than career fire departments, I know I’ve been exposed to more on my career FD which is much busier than my VFD.

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  7. While the stresses of volunteer firefighting are not to be underplayed having done both I would not say it is more stressful; you are still able to pick and choose your calls and most VFDs run fewer calls than career fire departments, I know I’ve been exposed to more on my career FD which is much busier than my VFD.

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  8. I really don’t think it matters if a FF is career or volunteer. Every individual is going to experience something at some point that is going to psychologically scar them. The ones who for whatever reason are affected harder by it are the ones we label with PTS.

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  9. Dave Sutherland // January 20, 2017 at 9:06 pm // Reply

    I have been a volunteer for 17 years now, ever since I retired at age 60. Like anyone else who has been in emergency service for a long time, I have seen people die just about anyway that they can die. Fortunately, I think I have missed serious PTSD issues up to now. Over the last year I have had 2 serious health setback that will probably force me leave our small, rural fire department. I have noticed in this year that I am growing pretty short tempered. I am trying to work on the temper.

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  10. George Martin // October 14, 2017 at 7:20 pm // Reply

    I WAS a volunteer FF for 6 yrs. AND highly trained. I HAD a wife and 4 daughters (Oldest was 15yrs. at THIS time). Our FD had 12 CAREER FF and 15 volunteers. We did ALL of the EXTRACATIONS/RESCUES in our RURAL COUNTY ( approx. the same sq.mi. as Grant co. in Washington state ). We had one major 4 lane hwy. ( speed limit 70mph) and one two lane hwy. ( speed limit 60mph) bisect our county seat.
    Pager went off in April of 2001 – “10-50…” J ” unkown. 5 VEHICLES involved. Located….” As I was responding ,via pov, the “J’s ” ( Death count ) started climbing….quickly. “3” Fatalities total. Upon arrival on scene, I went vehicle – vehicle doing victim assessments. while doing this task, I had to go by the UNIDENTIFIABLE & MANGALED vehicle (it WAS a Ford Taurus) WITH the “3” fatalities still inside. I recognized and knew the deceased female driver. I also knew she had a family. When the time had come (AFTER 5 HRS OF US SITTING ON A HILLSIDE STARING and WATCHING IN SILENCE while crash investigators did their job. They discovered TWO ADDITIONAL bodies…one adult (submarined under dash board, passenger side.found only by an extra set of feet extending into driver side foot well) AND one tiny 7 mo. old BABY……who’s head was smashed FLAT from the IMPACT by a 3/4 ton truck w/horse trailer attached.) to pry and cut the victims out of this co-mingaled wad of light blue and red steel, we sheared the “roof” off first as it was now LESS THAN 18″ WIDE and in the way and then sheared off the “B” pillars eliminating three of four car doors at the same time…..very efficient and effective. First we got the driver out as she fell out then the unseen passenger who took time to remove as there was nothing solid to get a hold on to retrieve him. Upon removal of him, I noticed a familiar tattoo on his arm AND THEN
    I SUDDENLY REALIZED, RIGHT THEN, THAT I KNEW EVERYONE OF THESE DECEASED PEOPLE ! THEY WERE MY FRIENDS!
    By odds and statistics, I WOULD repeat a SIMILAR CALL in the FUTURE….. ONLY THE DEAD WOULD BE MY CHILD or CHILDREN!!
    THE MENTAL PAIN of EVERY EXTRACATION worked over these 6 years had SUDDENLY TAKEN IT’S TOLL!! WITHIN 8 months of THIS DEADLY crash, CAUSED by an IMPAIRED DRIVER, I had LOST EVERYTHING INC. MY FAMILY BECAUSE I WITHDREW,ISOLATED MYSELF and DELVED INTO ALCOHOL as an ESCAPE FROM these PAST SIGHTS and CURRENT THOUGHTS of ” NEXT CALL…MY CHILD”, IGNORING MY FAMILY as I TRIED to silently cope with what I’ve seen and been through as NONE OF THEM ( my then WIFE included) would understand !
    I AM LUCKY that this NOBLE, HONORABLE, ADRENALINE FILLED PROFESSION didn’t drive me TO COMMIT SUICIDE although I THOUGHT about it. In the end, instead of receiving accolades and awards in which I gathered a few, I RECEIVED A LIFE SENTENCE OF MENTAL, PTSD FILLED TORMENT and TORTURE and I moved many states away to TRY to FORGET!! I AM ASHAMED OF MYSELF…16 YEARS LATER….I CAN’T STOP TO HELP WORK AN INJURY ACCIDENT. I JUST DRIVE PAST THE TORN UP VEHICLE, INGNORING THE CRIES OF A MOTHER HOLLERING and SOBBING “…..MY BABY,MY BABY…PLEASE HELP!! ” THIS ACTUALLY happened in 2014 on the hwy., in a rural area…..I found out later THE BABY HAD DIED!! JUST THIS incident alone I suffered for 2 WEEKS……IN GUILTY SILENCE…..NOT EVEN telling my fiance about it…..contemplating suicide over my own perceived cowardice!
    I NEVER SOUGHT “PROFESSIONAL” help as I believe that they would not or could not relate to me and my experiences as they were never one (FireFighter).
    A.A. has helped as I am now free of the burden of alcohol due to two DUI’S HOWEVER THIS opened a NEW door. Unbeknownst to me, word EVENTUALLY got around about me and MY EXPERIANCE by a trusted friend. One day (this is how I found out) I was approached by an unknown (to me) woman out of the blue at a business I frequent. We talked in general but briefly BEFORE it became obvious I WAS TARGETED!! She told me her name AND ALSO stated she was a representative of M.A.D.D. and also affiliated with our local Victims Impact Panel that ALL D.U.I. CASES MUST GO THROUGH! I WANTED TO RUN….FAST!…I’VE BEEN JUDGED and TORMENTED ENOUGH, I thought!!!
    She quickly put me at ease by stateing “WE WOULD like for YOU TO CONSIDER telling YOUR STORY,YOUR EXPERIANCE TO OUR M.A.D.D./VICTIM IMPACT PANEL RELATING TO HOW A DRUNK DRIVER AFFECTED YOUR LIFE, I UNDERSTAND THAT YOU HAVE THIS INCREDIBLE STORY THAT WOULD HAVE AN IMPACT THESE PEOPLE. WOULD YOU PLEASE CONSIDER GIVING A PRESENTATION?”
    I took me 2 months, several visits to my counselor and a few NEGOTIATION ( I DEMANDED and RECEIVED a ” No Holds Barred ” Presentation with the only STIPULATIONS being NO NAME CALLING and NO LAYING ON OF HANDS as WE ARE ALL ADULTS.) calls with her for me to JUST say “yes” and another couple of months to un-bury and dig out on-scene, unseen photos and related info. PLUS ANOTHER MONTH JUST TO PUT IT ALL TOGETHER. I THOUGHT THAT IF I AM GOING TO RISK MY LIFE (SUICIDE) OVER DOING THIS FOR THESE ADULT PEOPLE AND DOING IT FOR FREE THAT THEY IN TURN WERE GOING TO FEEL MY PAIN AND HELP ME CARRY MY BURDEN!!
    I pulled out all the stops by utilizing what I learned in COLLEGE SPEECH 101 & 102, USING THE MOST GRAPHIC ACCIDENT CRIME SCENE PICTURES ( M.A.D.D. picked up the tab for over 30 color copy sets of all my pictures,(Thx.MADD! ) SANS THE DECEASED OUT OF RESPECT for THEM and FAMILY.Pictures WITH the deceased aren’t as hard hitting anyway as most fluid stains,tissue pieces and chunks are hidden)SEEN IN PUBLIC ( each participant had one set of PICTURES in a certain order. Initially turned FACE DOWN UNTIL I SAID OTHERWISE….FOR MAXIMUM SHOCK VALUE, BUT ONLY BY SPECIAL INVITATION OF THE LOCAL JUDGE!
    By the time my hour had passed I was emotionally drained and wore out AND there was ABSOLUTE SILENCE and NO ONE HAD MOVED to LEAVE EXCEPT FOR : three left (saying they’d rather face the judge and/or “YOU ARE A SICK M….RF….R”) knowing that if you leave the V.I.P. YOUR AUTOMATICALLY facing the judge…VIOLATION OF A COURT ORDER!!
    2 got puking sick but had no excuses to leave as I put extra waste baskets around the room and 3 more passed out!
    As the people started to stir/come out of shock and SLOWLY FILE OUT, A FEW THREW their pictures at me HOWEVER SEVERAL APPROACHED me in various emotional states and in various ways to actually say “THANK YOU”, “YOU have CHANGED MY thinking”, “YOU HAVE SAVED MY LIFE!”, ETC.
    MY opening statement opened with ” I would like to say I’m glad to be here but WE all know that’s BULLSHIT!! YOU are here TODAY to SAVE MY LIFE and I AM HERE TODAY TO SAVE YOURS!!”
    I AM doing much better since doing this. THIS IS what SAVED MY LIFE and I WILL continue to do this when offered. I CAN STILL save LIFES and SERVE MY COMMUNITY!!…..WIN WIN ☺!

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