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UNTIL IT DOESN’T

Relationships in the Firehall, Crackyl Magazine
By Sarah Jahnke PhD

The beauty of the camaraderie, dark humor and fire station joking is that it effortlessly builds resilience. Until it doesn’t. 

Everyone wants to feel like they belong. It’s a human drive to feel like you are connected to a group and a part of something bigger than yourself. In many ways, it is this sense of belonging that is so protective in the fire service and likely is the reason rates of behavioral health challenges aren’t higher than they are.

The fire service is often referred to as a family. Fellow members are brothers and sisters. You can be anywhere in the country — or even the world — and a stop in at a local firehouse and the words “I’m a firefighter” serve as the magic words that gain you entry and a warm welcome.

The identity of being a firefighter is not only part of the draw for firefighters but for their families. There is a great deal of pride in serving your community. It’s not surprising that firefighter merchandise — t-shirts, mugs, challenge coins, pajamas — are big business. The career choice has people so committed that permanently tattooing that you are a firefighter is common in the profession. Most bankers don’t have a sleeve of money up their arm. Yet – that type of art is common in the fire service because of the strong sense of belonging that being a firefighter brings.  

So much of what helps first responders cope with the repeated exposure to trauma is what happens around the kitchen table, or in the day room, or on the back of the fire truck. It’s the informal conversations about calls and life that both help people to bond and process what they have experienced and has led to the success of peer support as an effective approach to behavioural health programs. 

The beauty of the camaraderie, dark humor and fire station joking is that it effortlessly builds resilience. 

Until it doesn’t. 

When that bonding and belonging doesn’t occur, it can have disastrous and measurably negative effects on both the physical and mental health of the people who are affected. 

In a study published in 2019 in BioMed Research International, our team studied the impact of discrimination and harassment on women in the fire service. While we don’t have the same data for men yet, it is likely we will see the same pattern of results once we are able to collect it. What we found was that when you asked women about their experiences of discrimination and harassment and divided them into Low, Medium, and High levels, a strong relationship between their experiences and health outcomes was found. 

For instance, women who reported high levels of discrimination and harassment were almost three times as likely to be in the range of concern for clinical depression compared to women who were in the low range of discrimination and harassment (Low 15 per cent, High 43 per cent). A similar result was seen for symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Of women, 7 per cent of those in the low range scored in the range of concern while 17 per cent of women in the high range of discrimination and harassment were in the range of concern. 

The impact extended beyond mental health with women in the high range being 20 per cent more likely to report an injury in the past year. They also reported an average of one extra day a month of poor physical health than those in the lowest range of discrimination and harassment — a result that was statistically significant. Negative experiences also led to higher rates of problem drinking.  

Even still, most women report loving the job. Of the women in the low range of harassment, 93 per cent reported being happy with their choice to be a firefighter and 84 per cent of women in the high range reported the same. 

On a case by case, incident by incident basis, it likely doesn’t seem like excluding someone or not accepting them in as a valued part of the team has many major consequences. In reality, it does — both physical and mental consequences and is one of the most significant and consistent predictors of poor outcomes. 

Bringing women (and likely any minority group) into a department that is not accepting and welcoming of them leads to poor outcomes. On the positive side, bringing them in and treating them well and as part of the group results in a more well-rounded group, with different perspectives and skills.  

Be kind. Be accepting. It does matter.

Sara A. Jahnke, PhD is the Director and Senior Principal Investigator of the Center for Fire, Rescue and EMS Health Research at the National Development and Research Institutes, Inc. Dr. Jahnke has served as the Principal Investigator of several large-scale studies of the health and readiness of the U.S. Fire Service funded by the Department of Homeland Security, the National Institutes of Health, and the American Heart Association. Current projects include studies focused on the health of women in the fire service, research on workplace violence, exposure assessments on the fire ground, and randomized controlled trials of wellness interventions. She serves as a co-investigator of several other studies focused on fitness, nutrition and health behaviors in both firefighters and military populations. Dr. Jahnke regularly serves as a consultant to several fire service organizations including the National Volunteer Fire Council and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. She is an active member of the Safety, Health & Survival Section of IAFC. In addition, she provides a monthly column for Rescue1 focused on interpreting research. Dr. Jahnke grew up around the fire service as her dad, Bill Jahnke, retired after more than a decade as Chief of the Overland Park Fire Department in the Kansas City suburbs before purchasing WHP Training Towers. He was an active voice in the national fire service and continues to collaborate with departments internationally. His dedication to the fire service and improving firefighter safety has inspired Dr. Jahnke to focus on the health and well-being of firefighters in her own career.

Photo By Billy Pasco

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