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New study estimates 20 percent of firefighters, paramedics have PTSD

The IAFF study also claimed that firefighters are 14 percent more likely to die from cancer

By Fauzeya Rahman
The Houston Chronicle

LAS VEGAS — Firefighters experience post-traumatic stress disorder at rates similar to what’s seen among combat veterans, according to a new report released Tuesday by the International Association of Fire Fighters.

While firefighters aren’t exposed to the same type of trauma soldiers see in a theater of war, elements of their daily job can be traumatic with the sheer volume of calls, the nature of the job and the possibility of losing a colleague in the line of duty, said Alvin White, president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association who was in Las Vegas for the association’s convention.

Almost 20 percent of firefighters and paramedics had PTSD, compared with the general population’s rate of 3.5 percent, the report found.

Firefighters also face a 14 percent greater chance of dying from cancer than the general population, according to the report.

Lobbying for coverage
The international association is pushing for new legislation that would allow firefighters to use a PTSD diagnosis to qualify for worker’s compensation benefits.

White said firefighters also have difficulties proving that health issues, including cancer, can be linked to on-the-job exposure.

“The No. 1 cause of death among firefighters is not from the fire itself, but from the occupational exposures to the toxins and carcinogens at the fire scene and exposure to diesel exhaust,” the report said.

White, a captain with the Houston Fire Department, wants better standards and procedures implemented to cut down on exposure to dangerous chemicals. The department has taken a positive step investing in new masks, he said, but he’d also like to see firefighters given another set of gear to use if one set gets dirty.

White and his colleagues are also hoping to meet with city leaders to find better access to help for firefighters who need it. HFD has two full-time staff psychologists and a few interns who can talk with employees, said Ruy Lozano, public information officer for the department.

“We’ve gotten to the point where they can’t deal with it themselves anymore,” White said. “You may not go get help immediately, but at some point you may pick up that phone and say, ‘Hey can I come talk to you?’?”

Anka Vujanovic, associate professor of psychology and director at the Trauma and Stress Studies Center at the University of Houston, said people - including firefighters - who witness human suffering, or see sudden, violent or accidental death or injury can be subject to PTSD.

“Firefighting is one of the most stressful and dangerous occupations,” Vujanovic said.

Greater awareness
When fire department employees double as emergency medical personnel - as is the case with HFD - firefighters are responding to “lots of different, highly dangerous situations outside of fires,” she said.

She’s seen research showing anywhere from 14 to 22 percent of firefighters experience PTSD.

“I think so often combat and war is what’s associated with PTSD, but it’s more important to remember PTSD can stem from a variety of traumatic life events - fires, natural disasters, transportation accidents, physical and sexual assault,” she said.

Greater awareness of the disorder’s symptoms is needed, so that people can better understand what they are experiencing and try to seek out help, she said.

White agreed. He doesn’t think the rate of PTSD among firefighters has increased but instead that awareness of the issue has gotten better. Prior to the terrorist attack in 2001, PTSD wasn’t something that was tracked efficiently, White said.

“Guys tried to take care of each other at the fire stations,” he said. “Little did we know we had a real issue.”

Firefighters with PTSD

Copyright 2016 the Houston Chronicle