What Mental Health Concerns Do Women in the Fire Service Face?

Published on January 20, 2021 by First Responder Wellness

Firefighters play a vital role in providing emergency services, rescue services, and fire suppression services. They support communities as a significant public health safety-net. They are among the first to respond to emergencies of all kinds. Along with the rewarding aspects of the job, high levels of stress, and toxic exposures put firefighters at an increased risk for medical and mental health concerns compared to the general public. 

Despite the growing number of women in this profession, many people may still think of firefighting as a man’s job. Although women make up a relatively low proportion of U.S.  firefighters—ranging from 3.5-5.1% according to a recent study, compared to other male-dominated occupations such as law enforcement—it is a critical population to look at in regards to mental health and well-being. In the past, because of a low number of women firefighters, published reports and studies excluded women due to small sample sizes. As a result, most of the literature on the fire service is almost entirely centered around male health concerns.

However, in the past few years, studies such as “Alcohol Use and Problem Drinking Among Women Firefighters” and “The Prevalence and Health Impacts of Frequent Work Discrimination and Harassment among Women Firefighters in the US Fire Service” reveal specifically what mental health concerns women in the US are facing in the fire service.   

Alcohol Use and Abuse

One of the most serious concerns that have been identified in male firefighting is the high prevalence of alcohol consumption and binge drinking. To understand how this same concern may affect women, data from the previously mentioned study on problem drinking suggests that it is a pressing issue amongst this population. According to the research that examined the associations between problem drinking, depression, trauma, injury, and job satisfaction, they found that “the majority of women firefighters (60.5%) drank more than the U.S. Dietary guidelines suggest women consume.” 

Of the 1,913 women firefighters in the study, about 40% reported binge drinking in the past month, and 4.3% reported driving while under intoxication. Of those reported with problem drinking, they were 2.5 times as likely to have been diagnosed with depression or post-traumatic stress. They were also less likely to recommend a fire service career to other women. 

Given the high rates of reported problem drinking among women firefighters, members of the fire service profession and healthcare providers should recognize the mental health and well-being risks this specific population faces. Although women had been previously left out of these studies, the occupational stress and trauma that plays a role in problem drinking can potentially affect firefighters regardless of gender. 

Discrimination and Harassment

A 2019 study on the mental health impacts of discrimination and harassment among women firefighters revealed that on top of the standard job stressors firefighters face, women who experienced a moderate to severe amount of discrimination or harassment found the job impacted their mental health and life negatively. Of the 1,773 women in the study, they reported experiencing verbal harassment (37.5%), hazing (16.9%), sexual advances (37.4%), and assaults (5.1%) in the fire service. Women who reported this discrimination and harassment also reported having higher depressive, anxiety, and PTS symptoms and issues with alcohol consumption. 

These findings suggest that in addition to facing the mental health and well-being risks because of the dangerous nature of the job, women in the fire service are also facing the unique challenge of discrimination. It is leading to some individuals having adverse mental health outcomes, low levels of job satisfaction, and is taking a significant toll on women in the fire service.     

Other Factors

Some other challenges women may be facing in fire service that may be contributing to stress, anxiety, and other medical and mental health concerns include:

  • Ill-Gitting Gear – in a survey done by the International Association of Women in Fire and Emergency Services, 80% reported that ill-fitting gear is a problem in their department. As body shapes and types come in all sizes, when equipment does not fit properly, it is not only a matter of comfort but safety too. 
  • Lack of Facilities – While there have been many improvements in workplace environments and professionalism in the firehouses, many older firehouses were built specifically for men. Having enough privacy may also be an issue with open sleeping quarters and sharing bathrooms and washrooms. 
  • Difficult Recruitment and Retention
  • Barriers to Promotion or Advancement

Firefighting is both a physically and mentally demanding job that provides around the clock emergency services. This repeated exposure to traumatic events, toxic chemicals, and other dangerous situations can impact how those in fire service think about and view the world. When severe enough, it can lead to mental health concerns and substance abuse problems. Although women make up a relatively small proportion of those in this profession, they still face the same occupational challenges along with other unique hurdles. Understanding the potential mental health risks this population faces can help those suffering identify, treat, and recover. If you or a loved one is suffering from the unique challenges emergency service professionals are confronted with, know that there is help. First Responder Wellness is here to guide you on your road to recovery and better mental health. We provide quality treatment within a community of others who’ve lived and experienced similar lives. Contact us today at (888) 743-0490.