New research reveals firefighters and paramedics are experiencing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) at rates comparable to combat veterans and developing cancer in far greater numbers than the general public. However, neither of these hidden hazards is adequately addressed in current protocols for treatment and remediation.
Understanding the behavioral and physical effects of the job is critical to keeping firefighters and EMS personnel safe so they can continue to keep their communities safe, according to a new report issued today by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF).
The report, “PTSD and Cancer: Growing Numbers of Fire Fighters at Risk,” (6.8 MB, PDF) found that an alarming number of firefighters now struggle with post-traumatic stress as a result of repeated exposure to horrific events over the course of a career.
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The IAFF report notes that doctors at the Warrior Research Institute (WRI) in Austin, Texas, have identified a clear link between traumatic situations experienced by firefighters and paramedics–from car accidents to mass casualty incidents–and PTSD.
PTSD can be 100-percent disabling, according to Dr. Suzi Byrd Gulliver, WRI’s Research Director who has been studying PTSD for many years. It can halt a fire fighter’s career in its tracks, and every professional firefighter taken out of service due to PTSD costs a community in training expenses and loss of public safety staffing and experience.
A separate study of a large population of U.S. and Canadian professional firefighters and paramedics reported rates of PTSD of more than 22 percent in the U.S. and over 17 percent in Canada.
A study of 402 professional fire fighters from Germany also found that the prevalence of PTSD was at 18.2 percent, with years on duty as the strongest predictor of PSTD symptoms.
PTSD is not the only hidden danger threatening firefighters’ safety. Numerous studies have shown that cancer rates run significantly higher for firefighters than the general population, according to the IAFF report.
In fact, the number-one cause of death among firefighters is not from the fire itself, but from occupational exposures to the toxins and carcinogens at the fire scene and exposure to diesel exhaust. In addition to inhalation hazards, chemicals pose a significant threat to firefighter health through skin absorption, even with a full protective ensemble.
“Our communities and their legislators need to understand how PTSD and cancer are impacting their firefighters over the course of a long and dedicated career protecting the public,” said IAFF President Harold Schaitberger. “New advanced protocols are needed to help prevent PTSD and cancer from taking hold and more elected officials need to step up and support laws that help firefighters afflicted with these hidden hazards.”
Thirty four states and 11 Canadian provinces have enacted presumptive cancer laws that allow for greater access to disability coverage for firefighters stricken with the disease. State and provinces are beginning to address PTSD among firefighters and paramedics in the same manner, but much more is needed. So far, only one state in the U.S. and five Canadian provinces have added PTSD to the list of occupationally related diseases in first responders for the purpose of workers compensation benefits.