Disability Blog

Firefighters and PTSD: the response is real

The work of firefighters places them in harm’s way each and every time they go out on a call. They regularly experience firsthand trauma that most people only experience once or twice in their lifetimes. It can mean that firefighters are often placed in situations where they experience severe trauma and feelings of “hopelessness”, both of which can be triggers for developing posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

While it might not be physically visible for many, PTSD is a disability that greatly interferes with a firefighter’s ability to work. Many firefighters with this disability are unable to work with the condition and are forced to leave their work. If you are a firefighter and experience PTSD or other work-related disabilities and have been denied disability benefits, reach out to speak with Lalande Disability Lawyers today. Our PTSD disability lawyers are ready to hear about your case and help you win back your disability benefits. 

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects many who witness trauma

Posttraumatic stress disorder, more commonly referred to as PTSD, is a mental condition that develops as a result of exposure to a traumatic event. The event causes such emotional stress to the individual that it causes symptoms that make it difficult for someone with PTSD to carry on with their regular life. 

While PTSD can also develop in individuals who experience traumatic events in their personal lives, such as car accidents, the stressful nature of firefighting means that firefighters experience trauma on a regular basis. Any of the traumatic events that they experience on the job can be the trigger for developing PTSD, which is why firefighters and other first responders often develop PTSD.

Along with firefighters, police and paramedics are also at risk of developing PTSD.

The prevalence of first responders developing PTSD is significant. Their work requires them to experience traumatic situations on daily basis. Data from a 2011 study on first responders shows that there there are higher rates of prevalence among first responders than the average adult population. 

  • Firefighters have a 17% rate of having PTSD.
  • Volunteer first responders, including volunteer firefighters, have between a 12% and 23% rate of having PTSD.
  • Police officers have between an 8% and 32% rate of having PTSD.
  • Paramedics have a 26% rate of having PTSD.
  • Corrections Professionals have between a 17% and 26% rate of having PTSD.

Anyone exposed to trauma can develop PTSD

One of the key elements of why there is such a high rate of PTSD among firefighters is the level of trauma they witness and experience. Experiencing trauma is often a common experience among people who develop PTSD, and can take many forms:

  • experiencing trauma as a part of the job (e.g. firefighters and other first responders)
  • having a terrifying experience or having feelings of hopelessness
  • witnessing people being injured or killed
  • experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse (especially the case for victims of childhood abuse or neglect)
  • having existing medical issues like anxiety or depression

Firefighting presents both chronic and acute triggers of PTSD

Normally, a trigger can be identified in cases of people who develop PTSD. This is normally either a chronic stressor that has existed in the life of an individual for a long period of time  (which is the case in situations involving abuse that begins in childhood or dealing with other chronic mental issues like depression) or an acute, singular trauma that becomes the triggering event for PTSD. (such as being in a car accident). 

The nature of firefighting, unfortunately, means that firefighters deal with both triggers on a regular basis. Having to wait and prepare for the next call and knowing that the call could come at any minute means spending many hours constantly on edge, not engaged in any activity but also unable to fully relax. On the flip side, working on the scene of a fire is a tense situation full of potential triggers:

  • stepping into a burning building
  • successfully or unsuccessfully saving a victim
  • being surrounded by smoke
  • seeing the physical injuries of burn victims

Acknowledging the reality of PTSD among firefighters

PTSD is a challenging experience because of what is perceived as a lack of sympathy from family and personal friends. It’s challenging for someone who doesn’t work in the same field to be able to provide relevant and productive support to a firefighter who develops PTSD as a result of his job. For the firefighter, there can also be a need to maintain the appearance of a “hero”, to keep up appearances in front of people whose understanding of firefighting might be limited to the news stories of heroic rescues. 

Even for individuals in the same line of work, trauma can affect everyone in different ways. It is completely normal for a firefighting team to complete a call and for one member of the team to develop PTSD, while another does not. There can even be pressure within the firefighting organization, either officially or from other coworkers, to play down the emotional effects of PTSD.

The symptoms of PTSD can mean long-term disability

Symptoms of PTSD can begin to appear within 4-5 weeks of experiencing the traumatic event. Grouped into four main categories, these symptoms can greatly impair someone’s ability to function in their personal lives, much less excel at work:

Re-experiencing symptoms (or intrusive memories)

Strong, negative memories of the event can be triggered by an otherwise innocent comment or situation. It can lead to extreme emotional and physical responses from remembering or recalling the traumatic event:

  • repeated memories of the worst details of the traumatic event
  • flashbacks that force you to relive the trauma.
  • nightmares and upsetting thoughts about the traumatic event.
  • extreme levels of stress when faced with something that is similar to the traumatic event that caused your PTSD.

Hyper-arousal symptoms

After the traumatic event, a person with PTSD might feel heightened negative emotions, including feelings of anger, frustration and shame. These negative feelings can remain hidden inside or be visible in a number of ways:

  • appearing tense or in a constant state of readiness (unable to relax)
  • finding it challenging to fall asleep
  • being angry or aggressive
  • easily surprised or startled
  • suddenly overwhelmed by negative emotions
  • exhibiting behaviour that is self-destructive

Persistent avoidance symptoms

The painful emotional effects of PTSD are often felt when someone with the condition is reminded of the traumatic events. Many people with PTSD will exhibit persistent avoidance symptoms, where they show signs of trying to avoid any possibility of being reminded of the traumatic event that triggered the PTSD:

  • Actively trying to avoid the topic of the traumatic event
  • Not speaking to individuals, going places, or participating in events connected with the traumatic event
  • Trying not to think or speak about the traumatic event

People with PTSD may have difficulty managing close relationships. Friends and colleagues of people who have gone through a traumatic event may want to speak to them about it, if only to express their sympathies and condolences. While well-intentioned, just the thought of having to speak about the trauma can be overwhelming for someone with PTSD and can cause them to avoid meeting other people, even their closest peers. 

Negative emotions

Living through a traumatic event can leave someone feeling various negative emotions. Individuals with PTSD can feel shame about the event, confusion as a result of their distorted memories of the trauma, or even demonstrate emotional numbness:

  • Experiencing a noticeably negative shift in thinking and mood
  • Difficulty having positive thoughts and feeling optimistic about the future
  • Difficulty feeling interested in personal hobbies and interests
  • Increased negativity towards themselves and others

Recognizing the signs of PTSD in the workplace

With PTSD can other cases of mental health issues, acknowledging that there is an issue is often the most important first step towards better health and making key adjustments to resolve the situation. However, individuals with PTSD can often be the last ones to recognize that they are dealing with the effects of trauma. This can be the result of personal stubbornness, an established workplace culture that doesn’t proactively address mental health issues, or many other reasons.

Disability at the work results in poor performance

PTSD at the workplace can result in poor performance at work, unusual emotional responses and decreased physical and mental ability. The impact of the disability as a result of PTSD can mean individuals are unable to consistently complete the duties of their occupation. 

  • Memory loss or inability to concentrate
  • Difficulty managing multiple tasks or completing work on schedule
  • Anxiety and fear about usual duties
  • Demonstrating aggressiveness and anger in personal situations
  • Unwillingness to complete normal job duties
  • Inability to respond to stress in a healthy way
  • Extreme fatigue and unusual sleep patterns
  • Increased absenteeism or lateness
  • Decreased performance and productivity

For firefighters, PTSD is a potentially career-ending disability. In the life-or-death situations that firefighters operate in, it’s critical for the entire team to be operating together and at optimal strength. Working with someone with PTSD in the workplace can be challenging in the best situations but having to do it in a high-pressure rescue situation can mean disaster for the firefighter with PTSD and everyone else involved. 

Understanding signs of PTSD will help identify the mental health issue in yourself and your colleagues sooner. The sooner mental health issues are identified, the sooner plans can be put in place for someone living with this disability. 

Are you a firefighter who has experienced PTSD?

Your experience is not unusual; across Canada, it’s been shown that firefighters everywhere are dealing with higher than average rates of PTSD. Trying to maintain work to support a family can be an impossible struggle while managing a disability as impairing as PTSD, and at some point, it can become too much to manage. 

If you are a firefighter who has developed PTSD and has been denied your long-term disability benefits, speak to us at Lalande Disability Lawyers. It can be challenging to leave a career that you’ve dedicated yourself to, and you deserve to receive disability benefits that will give you and your family the financial freedom to focus on your healing. We have been fighting for the disability benefits of firefighters since 2003 and have experience in ensuring that you receive the disability benefits that you deserve for your service. 

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