Back in ‘93, Cincinnati’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health conducted a survey to help indicate potential stressors, psychological distresses and alcohol problems among firefighters. Out of 145 firefighters, 29% had problems with alcohol use and/or abuse. Also in the survey, “hearing that children are in a burning building was the highest ranked stressor.” Plain and simple, firefighters deal with more extreme stressors on a daily basis than the average working citizen, and since that study, it’s not as if the life of a firefighter has gotten any “easier” — today, the threat of alcohol abuse among firefighters is more than double than that of the general population.
Take these statistics:
- Cases of alcohol abuse were more common than cases of PTSD after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. Nearly 25% of the Oklahoma City firefighters in a sample survey were diagnosed with active alcohol disorders after the bombing, and another 1/4 had alcohol problems before the bombing. (firechief.com)
- Cornell University’s Smithers Institute at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations conducted a study in 2004 to learn about the effects of 9/11 on FDNY first-responders and found 11% were at risk for a severe drinking problem, and only 5% of those surveyed said they’d seek professional treatment for a drug or alcohol problem. (firehouse.com)
There are several main reasons why a firefighter may turn to alcohol: emotional trauma (which commonly leads to PTSD), physical injury or the “work hard, play hard” atmosphere that can surround an off-duty firehouse community. Whatever the reason, departments all over the country have been adopting and adapting policies to help prevent alcohol abuse among their own departments.
Mike Healy, addiction specialist, former chief fire instructor and close friend of Treatment Solutions, was involved in New York’s volunteer fire service for 42 years. He got clean and sober 24 years ago and has since toured all over the country to talk about his experiences. Both of his sons are in the fire department – one a former chief, the other a current chief.
“There are over 750, 000 volunteer firefighters in this country,” he says. “These are normal people doing abnormal things. You pull up to a burning building that everyone else is running out of… and we’re running in. You see people die. You may be carrying a dead baby out of a building. You see people at their worst. It’s a very emotional type of career. At the end of the day, what’s everybody going to do? Alcohol is involved in a lot of what goes on in the firehouses, and with career or volunteer firefighters. It usually starts innocently enough. And most things firemen do, they do together. Emergency services in general usually run the same: you hang with your own — the people who understand.
The zero tolerance policy
In April of 2002, The New York City Fire Department started cracking down on their departments, enforcing a zero tolerance policy on illegal drugs and announced they would terminate any firefighter who failed a random drug test. The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), among others, has since advocated a zero-tolerance alcohol policy for all of its members worldwide — though it’s really up to each department’s supervisor to adopt this kind of policy.
Mike Healy says, “To not have a zero tolerance policy is stupid… But there’s a lot of tradition in the service, and part of the problem is that we’ll do anything to protect each other. We’re so used to protecting each other that when someone has a problem, it’s harder to recognize; it takes longer to figure out and longer to do anything about.”
There is help available
Treatment Solutions’ National Fire Services Member Assistance Program, in conjunction with the NVFC, offers a 24/7 toll-free, confidential phone line not only available to firefighters, but their family members in need of assistance and guidance with alcohol, drug and/or critical incident-related concerns, issues or questions.
“Let’s say you’re a firefighter or volunteer, and you come home and find out your kid is on Oxycontin. What do you do? You can call that number and wind up personally speaking with Mike [Blackburn, Treatment Solutions’ Senior Vice President of Business Development and retired Rhode Island Fire Department Battalion Chief] or myself for help,” Mike Healy says. “So you know you’re speaking to one of your own.”
If you or a loved one needs help with alcohol or drug abuse, call the NVFC at (1-888-731-FIRE 3473) or visit the National Fire Services Member Assistance Program.
More about Mike Healy
Mike Healy is a 42 year member of the fire service, serving 13 years with the Blauvelt Fire Department, and 29 years with the Central Nyack Fire Department where he served 10 years as Chief. Mike is a New York State Fire Instructor, as well as the Coordinator of Fire Education at the Rockland County Fire Training Center. He is a Hands On Training Instructor for the NYS Association of Fire Chiefs, as well as vice chairman of their hands on fire training program. He has presented in the NYSAFC seminar series, as well as their mini seminar series. Mike has written many articles regarding the fire service for Size Up Magazine and Firenuggets.
Mike retired from New York City Transit in 2008 after 28 years of service. Prior to retirement, he served as the Clinical Director of the TWU / NYCTA Union Assistance Program. He is a (CEAP) Certified Employee Assistance Professional and a (SAP) Substance Abuse Professional with 19 years experience in employee assistance.