18-19 Segment 1: Firefighters and PTSD

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Firefighters have an extremely high rate of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One study found that each year firefighters are exposed to approximately thirteen and a half potentially traumatic events, compared to civilians who experience around one to six of the same kind of events in their entire lifetime. Clearly, firefighters’ stress load is more than the average person, but what constitutes a traumatic event and how does one develop PTSD?

Dr. Suzy Gulliver is the Director and Chief of the Warriors Research Institute at Baylor & Scott White Health in Dallas, Texas as well as a Professor of Psychiatry at Texas A&M College of Medicine Health Science Center. She says experts define potentially traumatic events as those outside normal experience that threaten a person’s life or integrity. Although, how people deal with these events can vary dramatically. “For some people, a traumatic event is resolvable in just a normal grief process and for other people, a traumatic event fails to resolve ever,” says Gulliver.

According to Gulliver, most people in high-risk jobs, such as first responder and those in the military, do not develop PTSD. Around 70-80% of firefighters and veterans will not develop the disorder, although veterans have the added difficulty of transitioning to civilian life without the consistent social structure shared by members of a firehouse. A supportive social structure and a strong network of co-workers can act as a ‘buffer’ to PTSD, which is why Gulliver sees firefighting as a good career choice for veterans. Although she cautions multiple traumatic events over time can also cumulate into PTSD.

Symptoms include re-experiencing traumatic events, substantial changes in mood and cognition, significant behavioral shifts, and increased arousal. PTSD can also precipitate sleep problems, drug and alcohol abuse, appearing withdrawn and propensity for being startled. Severe PTSD is typically easy to identify, but borderline forms of the disorder can be extremely varied and harder to diagnose. Some people may have all the symptoms but still function relatively well in society. There is no typical way PTSD is dealt with or displayed.

Dan Robertson, Oakland fire lieutenant and President of the Local 55 of the International Association of Firefighters, says those in his field are uncomfortable sharing the impacts of trauma with fellow first responders because they fear being viewed as weak or unable to be trusted. Robertson says it’s the responsibility of senior firefighters to show it’s safe to talk about traumatic events and admit to having PTSD. If not, those afflicted deal with the disorder on their own and are offered little assistance. Robertson encourages peer counseling for firefighters because many believe anyone outside the profession cannot possibly understand what they’re going through.

Gulliver says research shows peer support can be effective in treating depression. It can likely help those with PTSD as well. Ultimately, the stigma of getting help for PTSD is decreasing. Most importantly, the firefighters participating in support programs say it’s saving lives.


  • Dan Robertson, Oakland CA fire lieutenant and President, Local 55, International Association of Firefighters
  • Dr. Suzy Bird Gulliver, Director and Chief, Warriors Research Institute, Baylor Scott & White Health, Dallas, and Professor of Psychiatry, Texas A&M College of Medicine Health Science Center

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Coming Up On Radio Health Journal Show 18-19

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Firefighters and PTSD

Firefighters have extremely high rates of PTSD, similar to combat soldiers, yet are very reluctant to seek help. Experts discuss reasons for this reluctance, results of it, and how new efforts at peer counseling may help ease the psychological strain.  

Autism and Prodigies

Behavioral similarities between prodigies and some people with autism have long been noted. Now some researchers are beginning to find genetic links between the two phenomena. Experts discuss findings and their implications for autism treatment.

Medical Notes 17-18



Medical Notes this week…

One of the most dangerous professions of all is “firefighter.” But the job carries more than just the risk involved in answering a call. Nearly half of all on-duty deaths are a result of heart attacks, often after the call is over. Now a study in the journal Circulation may show why. Researchers say that extreme heat combined with physical exertion dehydrate the body, divert blood to the skin, lower blood pressure and increase blood clotting in the body. Firefighters involved in the study rescued a simulated victim during exposure to temperatures as high as 750 degrees.

People are supposed to get eight hours of sleep per night if they can but more than nine hours a night could be an early sign of dementia. A study in the journal Neurology finds that elderly people who consistently sleep more than nine hours a night have twice the risk of dementia over the next 10 years as people who sleep less. The risk climbs to six times normal in long sleepers without a high school degree.

A finally, if you want people to avoid junk food in vending machines, make them wait. In a study presented to the Society of Behavioral Medicine, researchers rigged vending machines with a 25-second delay before dispensing junk food, and a notice of the delay on the machine’s LED screen. Purchasers had a chance to buy something else to avoid the delay, and many did. Healthy snack purchases increased by as much as five percent.

And that’s Medical Notes this week.