Why Are Emergency Responders Vulnerable To Alcohol Abuse?

Tragically, there is a serious problem of emergency and first responders and alcohol abuse. Exposure to traumatic experiences, while a part of the daily jobs of police, firefighters, and EMTs, can lead to the development of multiple behavioral health disorders. Confronting serious bodily injury, violence, and loss on a daily basis can leave many emergency personnel feeling isolated and unbalanced. An estimated 30% of first responders develop conditions like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicidal thoughts, compared to 20% of the general population. Among these behavioral disorders, many first responders suffer from an Alcohol Use Disorder (also known as an alcohol addiction).

Alcohol consumption (including heavy drinking and binge drinking) among first responders is higher than that of the general population. In addition to coping with the solemn events of their jobs, emergency responders may drink for a number of other reasons not as grave. For instance, when surveyed, firefighters listed maintaining a difficult schedule, camaraderie, peer support, and stress management as reasons for drinking.

Many first responders engage in social drinking and never progress to alcohol dependence. However, for those that do, the weight of guilt and shame can often lead to total devastation in their personal and professional lives.

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Rates Of Alcohol Abuse Among Emergency Responders

Rates of alcohol abuse vary among police officers, firefighters, and EMTs, and distinctions exist between men and women and career civil servants and volunteers as well. Past month heavy or binge drinking was reported by about half of male firefighters; 9% reported driving under the influence. Conversely, almost 89% of female firefighters reported past month alcohol consumption. Another study revealed that over 39% of female firefighters binge drank, compared to less than 15% among the general population. Volunteer firefighters, on the other hand, reported past month alcohol use at a rate of 70%; 45% reported binge drinking.

In one study, 35% of firefighters reported members had missed their shift or calls due to excessive alcohol use. Only 25% perceived that alcohol was a problem in the department.

Among other emergency responders, a study of police officers showed that female drinking rates were likewise higher than males (16% and 11% respectively). High risk of alcohol and drug use was observed in as much as 40% of EMTs and paramedics.

Additionally, first responders are at an even greater risk of developing an alcohol addiction following “critical incidents” such as witnessing death (including the deaths of citizens and fellow personnel). One study showed that alcohol use increased incrementally for the first 8 days after an incident and didn’t return to normal for another 8 months. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, alcohol use among police officers increased significantly; another study estimated the increase measured from 2 to 7 drinks per day.

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Getting Help For A Functioning Alcoholic

The link between substance abuse, depression, and suicide attempts is vital in understanding and treating addiction in the first responder workforce. Many first responders carry an enormous weight of responsibility in their jobs, all of which enforce zero tolerance policies regarding dangerous drinking habits. Subsequently, a majority of these individuals will “suffer in silence,” refusing to seek help for their addiction due to stigma and shame.

Don Prince, former fire chief, firefighter, and EMS provider, recounts his mistakes with alcohol in a personal account of the time:

“In my mind nobody knew about my drinking and I was great at hiding it, or so I thought (like by drinking vodka so nobody would smell it on my breath). What a fool. The talk behind my back was always there from my family, co-workers, friends and ultimately of course, the guys at the firehouse. I choose to believe that nobody would suspect me to be a drunk… One of the biggest things I could not let go of was my embarrassment, disappointment in myself and shame of having to resign my position as chief and my membership after almost 17 years of being a part of something that meant so much to me and for which I was not willing or able to make a choice to correct in order to try and save. Drinking was more important than my career and family at that time. I now see that if I had addressed my addiction years ago and sought the help that was offered to me none of this would have happened.”

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An addiction can distract an individual from fully living their personal, social, and professional lives. For first responders, the cost of an untreated addiction can be losing years of dedication spent in service to the public. Don’t wait until your job is on the line; contact a treatment provider today.

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