Friday, March 29, 2024

Volunteer Firefighters: Overlooked Mental Health?


When we think of firefighters, we often imagine brave men and women charging into burning buildings, ready to save lives. But what many people may not realize is that the majority of firefighters in Western countries are actually volunteers.

In the United States alone, 67% of firefighters are volunteers while only 33% are paid career firefighters. Though some may serve in both paid and volunteer positions. While both groups serve their communities with courage and dedication, there are distinct differences between them that should not be overlooked.

Although volunteer firefighters do not receive a salary for their service, they may be reimbursed for expenses such as food, transportation, and supplies. They may also receive certain benefits, including life insurance and health insurance, which equal about 20% of what a career firefighter earns.

One key difference is in the mental health support provided to these two groups. While much research has been done on the mental well-being of paid career first responders, studies have shown that volunteer firefighters often experience higher levels of PTSD symptoms after major traumatic events. They also have higher rates of depression and suicidal thoughts compared to their paid counterparts.

This could be due to a number of factors, including limited access to mental health resources within volunteer departments. Unlike paid career firefighters who undergo pre-employment psychological screenings and receive ongoing training on mental health and critical incidents, volunteers may not have the same level of support.

Volunteer departments often have fewer resources available for their members, however, there are organizations like the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC that offer resources for volunteer firefighters and their families. Their "Share the Load" program provides a database of licensed mental health professionals, as well as courses, newsletters, and videos about suicide prevention and other mental health issues. The NVFC also offers multiple ways for volunteers to reach out for help through the Suicide Prevention Lifeline by phone, online chat, or text.

Additionally, the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF has a trained peer support network composed of fellow firefighters who understand mental health concerns and can connect members (mostly career firefighters) with community resources and mental health professionals if needed.

The nature of firefighting, whether voluntary or professional, exposes individuals to high levels of occupational stress and repeated traumatic events, leading to physical and psychological health issues. Studies have shown that the risk of developing PTSD increases with the number of traumatic events experienced by firefighters during their work. Unfortunately, first responders are often the last to admit they need help, as it goes against their role as providers of support rather than recipients. Seeking help may be seen as a weakness in this community, where toughness is essential. However, it is crucial for first responders to know how and where to find help in order to build resilience.

Support mechanisms, the removal of the stigma associated with experiencing emotional distress, and education about good mental health being just as important as good physical health need to be available and easily accessible to all first responders.


If you believe change is possible, you want to change, and you are willing to do the work, you absolutely CAN get your life back.”

Get your copy of The Soldier's Guide to PTSDThe Soldier's Workbook

or Acknowledge & Heal, A Women's-Focused Guide to PTSD

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