Help for those who are first to help others: PTSD takes toll on firefighters, EMT

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Just like soldiers in combat, fire fighters and emergency medical responders share the same increased risk for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Approximately twenty percent suffer with PTSD. It’s an established statistic – but today, a new report further underscores the growing need for mental health support at the fire house.

Think about what they see. Just one example from recent weeks had first responders arriving at what initially appeared to be a burned-out building.  But the scene turned gruesome. Inside, they found the body of a child – malnourished and severely neglected – left to die in the blaze. Chicago Fire Fighters made the discovery.

“I always tell people if you look at my eyes right now, you couldn’t even imagine what goes on behind my eyes because the things we see and it has an effect on us,” said Daniel DeGryse, Battalion 1 Chief at the Chicago Fire Dept.

It should come as no surprise that the collective experiences take a toll.

In a report released today by the International Association of Fire Fighters, new research draws a direct line between on-the-job exposure to traumatic events and PTSD.

“When I talk about it, there are flashcards that go on in my head, hundreds of scenes of people drowning or stabbed or shot or burned or suicide,” DeGryse says.

Daniel DeGryse has been a Chicago firefighter for 27 years. After a string of suicides among his active and retired colleagues in 2007 and 2010, the Battalion 1 chief sought to better understand the emotional impact of fire service. His research has helped spark a much needed conversation about mental health among fire fighters.

“We came on this job to save lives and we could save 99 lives but that one life we don’t save burns inside of us our entire career,” he says. “And what we didn’t understand is how to deal with that, that constant thought of what else could we have done? How could we have helped?”

It’s the “what if-s” that so many need help processing. There are resources.  Chicago fire fighters have access to full counseling services, an employee assistance program put in place 30 years ago.

“Sometimes they are a little stoic when they do have something going on,” says CFD social worker  Liz Crowe.  “But most of the time when our employees are really hurting they will come forward and we do address it and help them out.”

But it’s a shift in fire house culture that may be having an even greater impact.

“A lot of times, it’s just talking to each other when they process out a fire,” Crowe says.

“We’re learning now that we’re human and that it is ok to have difficulty with the things we experience and that there are options both within the department and outside the department and people understand that we can overcome PTSD,” DeGryse says. “Thanks to guys on the job that have dealt with it and have overcome the stigma, have overcome the fear of losing their job, have overcome the fear of being looked upon as weak that we are able to start having that conversation in the open.”

So what's next? The IAFF, the group responsible for today's report, would like to expand PTSD resources, treatment and prevention. And so far, just one state, Oregon, has presumptive laws, meaning the state officially recognizes PTSD as a job-related disability.

Locally, fire fighters like DeGryse continue the conversation and educate their peers about the mental health risks of the job – something many in fire service never counted on.