firefighter wellness

As Fire Season Gets Longer, First Responders Face Prolonged Exposure to Trauma

Published on October 11, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

In many parts of the world — including the West Coast of the United States — climate conditions have been causing longer and more intense fire seasons. First responders are faced with longer periods of battling wildfires and assisting those in evacuation. Extreme heat, smoke inhalation, and witnessing the widespread destruction of wildfires can all contribute to the onset of post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI).

PTSI affects over 25% of first responders every year. Those who push themselves past their psychological limits — working overtime hours or refusing to take breaks, for example — are much more likely to develop PTSI symptoms in the future. Along with the side effects of anxiety, insomnia, and depression, PTSI also primes first responders to attempt self-medicating through alcohol and/or substance abuse. However, these attempts to stymie the pain of trauma through inebriation will only bury the truths and pain needing to rise up from within.

With a sustained fire season, the likelihood of experiencing trauma that might one day develop into PTSI greatly increases. Another repercussion is the burnout of working extended hours through an already-trying length of time. Work exhaustion may impact one’s personal health, leading to constant fatigue. Through constant exposure to disaster, first responders must cope with an increased risk of abusing alcohol and/or substances. Therefore, it’s important to know why work exhaustion contributes to PTSI and what strategies might be helpful for managing mental health during an ongoing climate crisis. 

 

The Stress of Overtime

Working long hours can wear down anyone’s mental health. First responders who take on the responsibility of securing the safety of civilians and residences during wildfires may be on-call for weeks at a time, particularly when hot spots flare up. Allowing for little or no time off, many workers are also required to travel out of town. Maintaining stability within a living situation becomes much more challenging when one’s occupation requires travel for weeks, if not months at a time.

Furthermore, firefighters are often asked to fight fires as long as they feel well enough to continue onward. Shifts lasting as long as 72 hours eat away at a person’s cognitive function, making the smallest of tasks loom like impossible obstacles. When paired with addictive tendencies, this mental fatigue can erode a person’s willpower, even after years of recovery. 

 

Feeling the Call

Most first responders will admit that they pursued their careers after feeling a call to help. The intention to help others represents an underlying desire to take control and facilitate a moral sense of “good” that others may benefit from. Such a desire, although originating from a place of optimism, runs counter to the philosophies of many Alcoholics Anonymous recovery programs. Surrendering the notion of control is a central tenet in recovery, as addicted individuals understand that addiction is more powerful than any one person. 

Operating with the expectation that any problem can be solved through willpower alone empowers first responders to achieve unthinkable feats as they work long shifts. However, when it comes to addiction recovery, thinking you can exercise complete control over the condition will likely lead to disappointment. This can also lead to a vicious cycle of relapse, as first responders may feel a similar call to make positive changes in their relationship with alcohol and/or substances, but experience frustration after experiencing difficulties in affecting the change they would like to see.

Moreover, studies have found that individuals claiming to pursue a career in first response work as a result of a “call” to serve are more likely to experience burnout. Higher levels of work exhaustion among these individuals emanates from an inability to take necessary breaks. Those who feel personally responsible for the state of their community and the safety of others also experience the weight of guilt when this world goes up in flames. The duality of this urge to protect causes first responders to share a vulnerability — that they care deeply about the well-being of their community. When this community experiences loss, the care they feel warps into grief, and then blame. 

Although the risks of alcohol and/or substance use disorder for first responders are great — and only further exacerbated by lengthy fire seasons — the outpouring of support from communities following catastrophic fires has been overwhelming. First responders can look to local resources for mental health counseling, PTSI group sessions, or simply finding places where they can rest and recover. As powerful as these wildfires may be, the fortitude of human empathy provides the best support for those on the frontline of defense.

 

Experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event can have a lasting impact on an individual, with symptoms that can linger for months or even years if they aren’t properly addressed. Many people — especially first responders — tend to push down their feelings and carry on as usual, even though they may be struggling to process high levels of stress, fear, guilt, and grief. In response, the brain sends out distress signals that create emotional, physical, and psychological symptoms that can negatively impact your overall health, concentration, emotional regulation, and more. In an effort to cope, many self-medicate with alcohol or other substances, with studies showing that almost half of those with PTSD (46.4%) also have a substance use disorder. While alcohol or other substances offer temporary relief, symptoms often worsen as addiction takes hold and coping becomes even more difficult. If you are ready to begin living an alcohol and substance-free life, call First Responder Wellness today at (888) 743-0490.