Firefighters and Addiction

Firefighters face a demanding work environment. Long work hours, lack of sleep and risky exposure to fires create considerable stress. Some resort to drinking alcohol to cope. This behavior may develop into an alcohol use disorder and interfere with job performance.

Despite the lack of substantial research about substance use trends among firefighters, a 2012 study published in Occupational Medicine revealed that 56 percent of career firefighters were past month binge drinkers. In fact, alcohol is the most common substance of abuse among firefighters, according to the Fire Service Joint Labor Management Wellness-Fitness Initiative, a collaboration between the International Association of Firefighters and the International Association of Fire Chiefs.

2012 study published in Occupational Medicine revealed that 56 percent of career firefighters were past month binge drinkers.

Recognizing patterns of alcohol use among firefighters is important because of the risks associated with the job. Firefighters must be at an optimal level of performance to ensure their safety and the safety of people they are rescuing.

Excessive alcohol use claims 88,000 American lives every year, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

firefighter rescuing a young boy from a burning building

WHY DO FIREFIGHTERS TURN TO SUBSTANCES?

Firefighters deal with irregular work hours, stress and exposure to hazards such as blazing fires and thick smoke. They struggle with poor mental and physical health, sleep deprivation and depression. To cope with these issues, some firefighters turn to alcohol.

Irregular Work Schedule

Firefighters typically work 24-hour shifts for 10 days a month. This irregular work schedule leaves them with a lot of free time.

Career firefighters believe that their shifts contribute to their heavy alcohol consumption. In fact, the study published in Occupational Medicine revealed that career firefighters consumed alcohol during half of their off-duty days.

In an interview for a 2014 study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse and Alcoholism, a career firefighter admitted that having an odd schedule was an excuse for him to drink alcohol. He knew when he did not have to go to work the next morning. To other firefighters, drinking became a filler activity.

The lack of a consistent work schedule gives firefighters more time to indulge in alcohol-related activities.

Socialization

Many people use alcohol as a means to socialize, and firefighters are no different. Firefighting encourages an atmosphere of camaraderie, and off-duty drinking is a way to bond with co-workers after long hours at work.

A firefighter quoted in the Journal of Substance Abuse and Alcoholism study revealed that it was common for firefighters to grab drinks after their shifts and tell stories about their days. He also said they acted the same way they would at the station, except they all had an alcoholic beverage.

Another firefighter said the career is traditionally macho and male-oriented, an environment that goes hand-in-hand with alcohol.

speeding fire truck in the city
Many people use alcohol as a means to socialize, and firefighers are no different.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse and Alcoholism found that 19 percent of firefighters who responded to the Oklahoma City bombing used alcohol as a coping strategy.

Stress

A Forbes article ranks firefighting as the second most stressful job in 2016.

Because of the nature of their work, career firefighters may struggle with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found that the rates of PTSD and depression among firefighters were higher than those among the general population.

Many firefighters resort to alcohol to unwind from their tedious workdays. One firefighter said in a survey response that the ease of access to alcohol made it a great means of sself-medicating. He explained that once individuals saw alcohol as a quick fix, they would be more likely to turn to alcohol following their problems.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Substance Abuse and Alcoholism found that 19 percent of firefighters who responded to the Oklahoma City bombing used alcohol as a coping strategy. Drinking was the second most common way to cope, with 50 percent of firefighters seeking support from friends and family.

Ready to start recovery now?

Our recovery programs are based on decades of research to deliver treatment that really works.

Get Help Today

ALCOHOL TRENDS AMONG FIREFIGHTERS

Studies suggest a similar incidence of binge drinking and heavy alcohol consumption among firefighters and military personnel, and both professions have rates higher than the general population. A 2011 study on the quality of life in professional firefighters found that 14 percent of firefighters engaged in hazardous drinking.

A survey by the International Association of Fire Chiefs revealed that 66 percent of participants reported seeing firefighters from their departments coming to work with a hangover, while 37 percent disclosed that they knew firefighters who skipped work because of alcohol use. However, only 2 percent noticed severe alcohol-related impairment among their department members.

Another survey by the Center for Fire, Rescue & EMS Health Research observed the alcohol use pattern among firefighters in the central United States from 2008 to 2010. The research found that 45 percent of volunteer firefighters were past month binge drinkers with 10 percent admitting to driving under the influence.

firefighters using a large hose to put out fire

SIGNS OF SUBSTANCE ABUSE

Due to the high demands of the job, it is critical to identify when a firefighter is impaired. An error in judgment, a moment of inattentiveness or lack of coordination may endanger firefighters and people around them.

Firefighters who grapple with substance abuse may exhibit these signs:

Firefighters who abruptly interrupt their drug or alcohol consumption may face withdrawal symptoms. If not managed, these symptoms can affect the firefighter’s performance.

Some alcohol withdrawal signs include:

Firefighters should not be afraid to reach out to their peers and supervisors for help. If they do not receive timely treatment, they can lose their jobs and worsen their health situations. Withdrawal symptoms range from mild to severe and can even lead to death, so it is important to seek help immediately.

woman firefighter in recovery from addiction

RESOURCES & TREATMENT

Firefighting is different from other occupations. The hectic lifestyle and high demands of the job require a specialized team of physicians to provide the appropriate treatment.

Fire departments often encourage firefighters suffering from a substance use disorder to seek help through support programs such as:

These specialized programs equip firefighters with the proper tools to overcome addiction and resume their professional lives.

doctor's stethoscope

Drug Testing

Firefighting is a job that demands dexterity and level-headedness. Any impairment while driving firetrucks or working to put out fires can put many lives, including the firefighter’s, at risk. To minimize these risks, fire departments often carry out drug testing.

In some circumstances, firetruck drivers undergo four types of drug testing, including pre-employment testing, post-accident testing, return-to-duty testing and follow-up testing.

Fire departments across the United States are strict about the use of drugs and alcohol while on-duty. Firefighters who refuse to comply with the test or test positive for illegal substances may lose their jobs.

Employee Assistance Programs

EAPs are voluntary, work-based programs that offer free and confidential resources to employees. They provide assessments of the employee’s personal and work-related issues as well as short-term counselling services, referrals and follow-up services.

EAP counselors work in tandem with fire department managers to ensure that firefighters have adequate support and resources to overcome their substance abuse issues.

Support group members in recovery

Alcoholics & Narcotics Anonymous

Firefighters struggling with a substance use disorder can attend AA or NA meetings, where they can talk about and receive support for their struggles with alcohol and drugs. They will be surrounded with individuals in similar situations who will guide them through recovery.

Support groups will hold firefighters accountable for their drug or alcohol consumption. The 12-step approach has proven very successful in helping individuals maintain a substance-free life.

View Sources

Share this article

Ready to make a change?

Get cost-effective, quality addiction care that truly works.

Start Your Recovery