I wish my mind would forget what my eyes have seen (Dave Parnell, Detroit Fire Department)

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD

PTSD develops differently from person to person. While the symptoms of PTSD most commonly develop very soon after or even days following the traumatic event, it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear. PTSD is commonly associated with the trauma suffered after serious injury to oneself or another, another’s death, or witnessing traumatic events.

A new study reveals that 90% of firefighters are living and working with PTSD. The study, conducted by Dr. Marc Lougassi, himself a firefighter, of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, found 90% of their professional firefighters showed full or partial symptoms of the mental health condition. Dr Lougassi explains: “Professional firefighters are frequently exposed to extreme stress during their work in emergency situations. In addition to the physical challenges of firefighting they must evacuate burned and injured victims or bodies. Their involvement in traumatic events exposes them not only to the pressures stemming from the traumatic event itself, but also to post-traumatic emotional expressions that result in secondary traumatization. As far as Israeli firefighters are concerned, there has been no documented evidence of PTSD prevalence, despite the fact that they are exposed to everyday Fire and EMS events, but the additional trauma such as war and terror strikes.”

Symptoms of PTSD

The symptoms of PTSD can be quite extensive, but will fall into one of three categories: intrusive memories, avoidance or emotional numbing and anxiety and increased emotional arousal.

Intrusive memory symptoms include reliving the traumatic event through flashbacks or nightmares.

The second group is avoidance or emotional numbing. These symptoms are exhibited when the individual consciously avoids trying to think or talk about the event, discontinues activities/hobbies that were previously enjoyed, easily forgets things, has trouble concentrating and cannot maintain a close relationship with others.

Anxiety and increased emotional arousal symptoms involve the person being highly irritable, displaying outbursts of anger or other self-destructive behavior, suffering insomnia and hearing or seeing things that are not present.

All of these symptoms of PTSD can come and go, but can be triggered by any reminders of the stressful event that the person experienced.

There are three main types of symptoms (From Helpguide.org) and they can arise suddenly, gradually, or come and go over time:

  1. Re-experiencing the traumatic event. This may include upsetting memories, flashbacks, and nightmares, as well as feelings of distress or intense physical reactions when reminded of the event (sweating, pounding heart, nausea, for example).
  2. Avoiding reminders of the trauma. You may try to avoid activities, places or thoughts that remind you of the trauma or be unable to remember important aspects of the event. You may feel detached from others and emotionally numb, or lose interest in activities and life in general, sensing only a limited future for oneself.
  3. Increased anxiety and emotional arousal. These symptoms include trouble sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, feeling jumpy and easily startled, and hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”).


Other common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame
  • Substance abuse
  • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
  • Depression, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • Physical aches and pains

Professional treatment for PTSD relieves symptoms by helping you deal with the trauma you’ve experienced. Rather than avoiding the trauma and any reminder of it, a doctor or therapist will encourage you to recall and process the emotions you felt during the original event in order to reduce the powerful hold the memory has on your life.


You will also:

  • Explore your thoughts and feelings about the trauma
  • Work through feelings of guilt, self-blame, and mistrust
  • Learn how to cope with and control intrusive memories
  • Address problems PTSD has caused in your life and relationships

Normally the articles I write are from a lot of experience and opinions from those experiences. This article is different because I cited some expert opinions on PTSD, something that I am not. I do believe I suffer from, as Dr. Marc Lougassi would say, partial symptoms of PTSD. For the most part they aren’t serious. There are three or four other firefighters and myself who have breakfast three times a week and there we re-hash a lot of calls we have had and how they made us feel. I believe that helps all of us a lot. I cannot, however, imagine how someone with full PTSD symptoms feels or what they go through day and night. To believe that firefighters and ems providers are unaffected by what they encounter every day is like believing someone can walk thru water without getting wet.

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So when someone comes to you as their leader with a problem they are having, don’t let the first thing you say be “I know how you feel,” because you don’t. After that, I only hear about 10% of what the other person has to say. Just listen to what they have to say. Offer the appropriate avenues for help if you have them. And if your department or city doesn’t, then start the process of creating a pathway for these personnel to follow to get help.

I don’t know how those with full PTSD feel. I only know it is real – and fire departments and cities across the country need to start rethinking what can actually injure our firefighters, physically and mentally.

There is hope. Recently Winnipeg announced new legislation that will make it easier for emergency personnel with potential for PTSD to get help faster. Ontario has passed legislation that will create a presumption that PTSD diagnosed in first responders is work-related, leading to faster access to resources and treatment. Unfortunately it is slow in coming to the United States, but we are getting there.

I put my heart and soul into my work and have lost my mind in the process. – Van Gogh

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William Jolley has 37 years of experience in the fire service with 20 of those years in a management position. William was the Fire Chief of Haines City, Florida, a city of Approximately 20,000. Prior to that William was the Assistant Chief of Saint Petersburg, Florida, where he worked for 35 years.

Posted in Chief William Jolley, Fire Service, Firefighter Health, PTSD.