Psychological Impact of Working as a Firefighter

Fire service personnel witness traumatic events everyday and traditionally, a stigma existed, leading many firefighters to keep their feelings about these events to themselves. Thankfully, things are now changing.

Not many people know about the day-to-day job of fire service personnel. Believe it or not, less than 5% of calls received by the fire department are fires. The vast majority of calls – 75% or more – are medical emergencies. This includes severe car accidents, natural disasters, substance overdoses, heart attacks, etc. This means members of the fire service witness horrifying, gruesome, and life-threatening events everyday. As the saying goes in many fire departments: “Your worst day is our everyday.” 

Traditionally, however, the fire department has been stoic about these experiences. Psychological suffering was seen as weak-mindedness and emotional turmoil was stigmatized. Those who struggled with cumulative tragedy were shunned and labeled as people who couldn’t cut it to be a firefighter.  

However, the culture in the fire service is changing thanks to recent research shedding light on the emotional toll of these experiences. Compared to the general population, fire service personnel have higher rates of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and problems related to alcohol use. One gut-wrenching study in 2017 found more firefighters died by suicide than in the line of duty.

These findings led to important initiatives across the state of Florida. The Florida Firefighter Health and Safety Collaborative, for example, offers two-day workshops specific for behavioral health clinicians. These workshops aim to increase clinician awareness and competence in working with firefighters.

Although awareness is key to initiate change in firefighter psychological wellbeing, there is still much work to be done. If you or a loved one is a first responder struggling with stress, irritability, sadness, and difficulties connecting with those around them, know that there are clinicians out there who can help. It’s time to change the culture around the fire service. It’s okay to not be okay.