Firefighters and Alcohol: Who Will Rescue the Heroes?

April 21, 2014
In the last couple of years, leading firefighter magazines have begun to address issues that, historically, have remained hidden behind the firefighting brotherhood’s code of silence.
Among the many reasons for the silence is that these issues — such as stress, PTSD, and alcohol abuse — go counter to the image firefighters have in the community.

Out in the nation’s communities, “There’s such a high trust,” for firefighters, says Chief Marc Revere, a 36-year firefighting veteran in California. “We’re off the charts in the esteem our communities hold for us.”

American Addiction Centers’ Mike Healy, a fire instructor with over 45 years in fire service, references a video on firefighter suicides as he explains that a firefighter on his way to work can feel a little like Clark Kent heading into his phone booth. “After a while,” Healy says, “it’s hard to become Clark Kent again.”

In his August article on “Dealing With PTSD” in Firefighter Nation Brian Meroney, a 20-year veteran at a Saginaw, TX, fire department, compared firefighters to soldiers: “Firefighters are on the front lines here in the states, defending and protecting every day, exposing themselves to danger and seeing things most people can’t even imagine. Firefighters are often exposed to traumatic events year after year without any debriefing or counseling.”
Some of their most devastating scenes a firefighter can respond to are the scene of a suicide, the death of a young person, or a fatal car crash; the memories can stick with a firefighter for years, according to a video made by South Metro Fire Rescue Authority (Denver). And in all those years, it’s possible the firefighter may never mention the traumatic memories to wife, husband, or fellow firefighter.

One way firefighters, especially younger ones, try to manage the crushing stress of their profession is by adding alcohol to their socialization. In the Denver Fire video, Battalion Chief Dan Mulroney admitted, “We do have a culture of substance abuse, self-medicating.” Drinking (like “gallows humor”) is accepted as a fraternal or familial kind of “blowing off steam.”

As a result, some estimates put alcohol abuse in fire departments at upwards of 25 — 30%, approaching two or three times the incidence of alcohol abuse in the general population (7 — 9%).”

And as in society at large, the college-age and early professional demographic sees the highest incidence of drinking and tends towards a binge drinking pattern. Given these numbers, and adding Baby Boomer retirements, fire departments are seeing growth, both in the percentage of younger firefighters and in the amount of alcohol abuse.

Chief Revere, a Harvard Fellow and recipient of the Fire Chief of the Year Award, recently made an impassioned request in Firefighter Nation for fire company officers to be proactive about containing alcohol use. “Your more enlightened departments realize it’s a disease; you have to seek help.” He outlines a way to spot someone having a problem with alcohol, asking that fire company officers be on guard for these signs so they can nip alcoholism (and addiction) in the bud. Revere groups the evolving relationship between drinker and alcohol into four stages:

  1. Enjoyment of the buzz, no after effects.
  2. Not just enjoying but seeking out the buzz. During this phase of increased drinking, the individual starts to need more substance to achieve the same high. Still the individual manages to avoid serious consequences.
  3. At the third stage, collateral problems start to seep into the individual’s life — hangovers, family problems, work problems. The individual will not recognize the connection to drinking and will likely be unwilling to change.
  4. The fourth stage can set lifestyle risk-behavior into motion that could lead to premature death. In the fourth stage, “The person now drinks to feel normal.” This phase comes with stifling feelings of guilt, anxiety, and shame.

According to Revere, it’s much easier for the individual to turn back from addiction in the first and second stages.

My concern for my firefighters is how do you bring them back [from alcoholism],” Revere told American Addiction Centers in an interview. His August article in Firefighter Nation was prompted by a couple of events that had impacted him as a fire chief. “My frustration when I wrote that article was that for the umpteenth time I had to terminate someone who went through that [rehab] process,” Revere recalls. “At the same time we had a family of four killed by a young kid who was drinking and driving.”

Revere referred to the idea of offering a “Last Chance Agreement” to the firefighter who is caught in alcohol addiction. “Last chance agreement basically says — we’re going to rehab you. This can’t occur again — then you’re going to be fired,” Revere explains. “The whole point is to bring the person back as a productive member of society and firefighter.”

However, once a firefighter gets to stage 3 and 4 alcoholism, according to Revere, the chances for long-term recovery from this type of “intervention” grow slim.

Scene in cafe - couple conflictHealy’s experiences concurred with Revere’s. “I just reached out to a guy, his mother’s reached out to him before. Now he’s not answering the phone.” Healy says, “When you’re in n-stage alcoholism, you’re pretty much gone, unless there’s some sort of intervention.” Most concerned leaders in the field think prevention is the way to go.

But early detection, averting the problem, goes counter to a long-time fire culture. Acknowledging alcoholism still carries a stigma. So does the idea of talking through one’s stressors. As in Healy’s observations, much of the stigma is connected to the fear of showing weakness. But as Meroney put it, “Firefighters need to know it’s okay to have an emotional reaction to a traumatic event and that they can talk about it with other firefighters or with medical professionals who are educated in treating PTSD.”

For Revere, initiating conversations with a co-worker or subordinate who may be struggling with alcohol addiction is a moral imperative. “We have the physical courage, we demonstrate that on a daily basis,” Revere says. “What we don’t do very well is have the moral courage to confront someone when they don’t behave well.”

In recent years, more progressive departments focus on prevention, promoting groups and events around awareness, encouragement to reach out, and minimizing the stigma. Among these progressive departments, there will typically appear peer support councils, awareness campaigns, and the availability of professionals trained in the issues specific to those firefighters. Revere has found the urban fire departments in his state more or less aligned in a preventive approach, but he points out that there are 32,000 fire associations across the country, each with its own regulations and processes reflective of its local culture.

Likely it will take a lot more education and media attention on this issue to arrive at a nation-wide strategy that works well in all communities

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