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Firefighters suffer from PTSD in numbers to rival the military, officials say

A firefighter with TVF&R battles a house fire on NW Germantown Road early Thursday. (TVF&R)
A firefighter with TVF&R battles a house fire on NW Germantown Road early Thursday. (TVF&R)
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Studies show that about 20 percent of firefighters suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, along with greater risk from suicide and job-related cancers.

This week at their biannual convention in Las Vegas, the International Association of Fire Fighters released a white paper highlighting the studies.

Chris Tompkins, a 19-year veteran with Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue who represents the Tualatin Valley Firefighters Union, said the culture of firefighting is to just not talk about the daily stress and trauma of the job.

“There’s a little bit of a stigma with our profession,” Tompkins said during a satellite interview from the convention. ”We don’t like to ask for help. We’re in a profession of helping others and it’s not the cool thing to do to ask for help.”

Tompkins said he suffers from PTSD and has learned that just talking about the toughest calls with his co-workers makes all the difference.

“Really, what we need is to educate our fellow firefighters and let them know it’s OK to talk about this,” he said. “Going without talking about this too long can be devastating for someone’s career and/or life.”

Tompkins said a recent study by Florida State University found that 50 percent of the firefighters had suicidal thoughts from years of responding to tragic calls and horrific scenes.

He said he and his fellow firefighters de-brief and de-fuse following high-stress calls.

"It’s not something that I used to be able to talk about but I’m really open with my co-workers right now,” Tompkins said. “Several of our departments have very good health and wellness programs set up. But we need a little more support from them to say, ‘Hey, come out and talk about this guys and gals.’”

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