Information for Firefighters
Firefighters and their families must have the resources to deal with emotional and psychological stress that can occur after critical incidents. They must also have help available to deal with problems in living that all of us sometimes face, regardless of the work we do. This includes family strain, financial challenges, or even drug and alcohol issues. Health and safety standards require that assistance programs be made available to ensure that such services are there when needed. As such, it is common for firefighters and support teams to communicate with one another after a critical incident to ensure that proper screening and assistance is provided, as needed. Support teams can include Employee Assistance Program providers (EAPs), mental health counselors, peer support team, and/or any other resources available through the fire department.
Following an experience of a critical incident at work, a support team may check in with you about your recovery. They may ask you informal questions about how you have been feeling and your thoughts about returning to work at that time. The support team may give you education about what firefighters typically experience after a critical incident that has elements like what you may have experienced. Often, they can also offer resources such as peer support or information on other programs that are available to you. If you have taken time off to recover after a critical incident, the support team will check in with you several days later and ask more specific questions about how you have been affected mentally, physically, emotionally, and socially. It is important to be honest with them so that they can be aware of your needs and offer you the support that you need. At this time, they will again discuss your thoughts about returning to work. Prior to returning to work after a critical incident, the support team may conduct a more formal screen or assessment. This may include having you answer questions about your distress and reactions to the incident. This assessment will allow the support team to work with you to determine how to move forward. At this point you may be able to return to work or the support team may discuss referrals to behavioral health treatment with you. Your support team may check in with you several more times to see how you are doing and determine if they can offer any additional services for you.
Firefighters respond in various ways after a critical incident. Whereas some people recover naturally on their own, others may continue to experience difficulty in the weeks and months following a critical incident. There are a lot of factors that may determine your own natural recovery process, such as the severity and type of event, level of life threat, death or injury of others, injury to self, and number of prior incidents.
Below are several symptoms that are common after experiencing a critical incident. If you are experiencing several of these symptoms or if these symptoms are affecting your day-to-day life, you may consider reaching out to your department’s support team:
- fear or anxiety
- feeling like you are reliving the incident (e.g., vivid memories, nightmares, flashbacks)
- avoiding thoughts, feelings, or situations related to the incident
- increased arousal such as feeling jumpy, impatient, and irritable
- having less interest in doing things you once enjoyed
- feelings of guilt or shame
- having negative thoughts about yourself or other people, or a negative view of the world
- increased use of alcohol or drugs
There are several very effective treatment options that behavioral health providers use to treat firefighters who are experiencing difficulties after a critical incident. You can see some information about this on the resources tab at helping-heroes.org (note that the website itself is designed for behavioral health providers, not for firefighters). Most health care providers will meet with patients on a weekly basis until symptoms resolve. Treatments involve identifying and processing thoughts and feelings related to the critical incident. They are designed to help you feel more in control of your emotions and symptoms. Please check out Firefighters Helping Firefighters at fhf.pocketpeer.org for more information about behavioral health needs and treatment as described by firefighters and fire service leaders. You can also use our Find a Clinician search engine at registry.cffbh.org to connect with a trained clinician in your area.