Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) describes the psychological problems that can follow traumatic events. Although it was not always the case, today it is often associated with soldiers and war veterans due to the harsh realities seen in battle, and the lingering effects this can have. However, PTSD can affect a much wider range of people and has existed for much longer than it has been recognised for.
Although it may not be as well publicised, just like soldiers, fire fighters are extremely prone to PTSD. The grittier details of what they have to confront on a daily basis are not often discussed, but they can include failing to rescue people from fires, including children, clearing dead bodies from the scene and or losing colleagues. Fire fighters are often the first on the scene of a fire and often do not know what is waiting to confront them. They could arrive at a fire where their most important duty is to get people out of a burning building, or they might arrive to a building where people have already died. Even rescuing severely injured people, particularly children, and having to administer basic medical care can be very traumatic and the more traumatic events an individual experiences, the more likely PTSD is to occur.
PTSD can manifest in a number of ways and may appear differently in different people. Some of the main symptoms to watch out for include:
- Feelings of depression
- Flashbacks or nightmares of the triggering event
- Sweating and nausea
- Irritability and severe outbursts
- Social withdrawal
- Difficulty concentrating
- Self-harming, or similarly destructive behaviour
Symptoms will usually occur straight after the traumatising event, but this is not always the rule. There have been known cases of PTSD, which have occurred months or even years later. For fire fighters who may have to confront traumatising events daily, PTSD can manifest after one event but become unbearable as their career progresses and they are exposed to more.
One example of this is Andy Graham, whose story was reported in the Manchester Evening News last year when he was dismissed from the UK fire service after his PTSD reached a level that began to affect his work. With 29 years of service under his belt Mr Graham had witnessed many shocking incidents, culminating in the death of a colleague, and close friend, in 2013 that left him unable to resume his previous duties.
The brigade defended their decision to let Mr Graham go, stating ‘We have worked with and supported Andy under our Capability Policy and Procedures, agreed with the Fire Brigades Union, seeking suitable adjustments and accessing occupational health and other support for him over the last three years but unfortunately he is not well enough to return to his job. We have a much smaller budget and fewer firefighters than in the past and we need our operational firefighters to be operationally fit to protect the public of Greater Manchester and unfortunately we cannot sustain people not doing their jobs indefinitely.’
Despite this, help for fire fighters experiencing PTSD is on the up with the condition becoming a more recognised part of their work. The NHS has a section dedicated to the story of a fire fighter and his struggle with PTSD, whilst Facebook hosts numerous groups aimed at bringing fire fighters suffering with PTSD, and their family members, together to help them. There are even online blogs that deal with the topic such as ‘Grieving Behind the Badge’, a blog set up by a woman named Peggy Sweeney who has witnessed firsthand the effects that PTSD can have on fire fighters and is an advocate for promoting emotional wellness amongst those on the front line and their families.
Civilians often have a rose tinted view of fire fighters. The generic, clichéd image of a fire fighter rescuing a child or a cat from a tree is popular, but barely brushes the surface of what a fire fighter will have to endure during their service. The majority of the public don’t see the dead bodies left behind, or have to cope with the distress of witnessing this. Many fire fighters are also ill prepared for this, with little training having been given in the past on how to cope in the aftermath of such events. There are certain organisations, such as The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation that offer support and advice in these situations. Their behavioural health model also notes that no two fire fighters will react to the same incident in completely the same way. What is important, is that there is a network of support in place to help the ones that are struggling and remind them that there is no shame in what they are feeling.
Paul North is Head of Operations at Fire and Water Supplies.