Firefighters can get PTSD too

Posted at 4:53 PM, Aug 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-16 18:57:47-04

Every summer, it seems like more and more fires are in the news. In August 2016, we've already seen a slew of fires in Southern California, not to mention several in our own backyards. 

The blazes leave a trail of death and destruction behind them, and that's what many of us focus on. There is one group we're forgetting, however. The men and women who risk their lives running headfirst into those fires to put them out and rescue our loved ones and our dogs and cats.

The number of firefighters being diagnosed with PTSD is rising. Approximately 20 percent of firefighters and paramedics have PTSD, and those affected aren't dealing with it very well. 

"Its been an alarming effect," said Joe Addivinola, the president of Anne Arundel County Firefighters. "We have some people that have problems with how they're dealing with it, whether it be sleep deprivation, suicide attempts, getting hooked on drugs."

Firefighters handle stressful situations every day -- more than most people ever see. In Baltimore City, violence is high and first responders are seeing the raw brutality of it.

"A few months ago we had a call where the first company on the scene had to deal with a child shot in the head," said Rick Hoffman, president of Baltimore Firefighters. "If that doesn't stick with you, nothing is going to."

There is some help available for firefighters to deal with these high-intensity situations. Anne Arundel County has an 800 number that members can call to schedule an appointment with a psychiatrist.

"The help is there; is it the best help? No. But it's some help," Addivinola said.

The firefighters could use some more support -- but there is another issue.

"The biggest problem we have is people coming forward," Addivinola said. "As firefighters we have that stigma of going into burning buildings, coming out and people just looking at us like how did he do that and it not affect them. Well, as time has shown, it does affect us."

Back in the old days, firefighters used to sit around the firehouse kitchen table and talk through everything they had witnessed. Now that tradition of coping may be on its way out due to smartphones and social media.

"Come back from a call, you get on your smart phone," Hoffman said. "It's a different way of life now where the actual sitting across the table from maybe an old veteran that has seen everything and he can talk you down; I think we're losing that in the fire service, I truly do."

Now fire departments in our state are working to pass presumptive PTSD laws. That would allow treatment for first responders to recover before returning to work.

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