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Firefighters Raise Alarm About Risk Of PTSD In The Ranks

New research indicates PTSD might be as common among firefighters as military veterans.

Volunteer firefighters training at Texas A&M's Disaster City in College Station
Volunteer firefighters training at Texas A&M’s Disaster City in College Station

Firefighters from the U.S. and Canada are in Las Vegas this week for the biennial convention of the International Association of Firefighters. One of the main topics of the conference this year is post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We know that it's increasingly on the rise,” said Alvin White Jr., the union president of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and a conference attendee.

White says it's not clear what's contributing to the increase – it could be simply that more firefighters are willing to seek treatment. The 9-11 attacks also helped to de-stigmatize the disorder among first responders.

"Before that we tried to deal with it ourselves,” White said. “We'd self-medicate ourselves with alcohol and try to take care of it that way, because it was a sign of weakness."

A report released Tuesday from the International Association of Firefighters summarizes the most recent research on PTSD.

Estimated rates among firefighters range 9 to 20 percent, which is comparable to the rate in the military.

Houston firefighters respond to both fires and medical emergencies. White says they can be traumatized by losing a colleague in a fire, but also by seeing civilians hurt and killed in car crashes and other accidents. Three Houston firefighters have killed themselves in the past five years, according to White.

"They're being exposed to all these tragedies that are out there, from (performing) CPR on a child to pulling someone out of a burning building,” White said.

"These are the things we deal with, we try to hide them, we try to mask them as much as we can,” he added. “But now they're becoming more and more open, and firefighters are actually asking for help."

The department does have two staff psychologists, but White says that's probably not enough for a department with more than 4,000 firefighters.

Rick Mumey, the general counsel for the Houston firefighters’ union, says Texas lawmakers could help by adding PTSD to a government list of medical conditions that are more likely to affect firefighters. That could help them file claims for workman's compensation and get better treatment.

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