Volunteer vs. Career Firefighters and Mental Health

For my ASL final exam, we students were tasked with choosing a topic on which to report, something that’s more academic than casual. Over the last few years, a beloved family member has been struggling with PTSD related to his time as a volunteer firefighter. Because he lives near the shore of a Great Lake, much of his time was spent doing water rescues. Well, more truthfully, they were water recoveries, as few people lost to a Great Lake come out alive. As traumatic experiences are repeated, firefighters develop mental health issues with few pathways to recovery. What follows is my (brief) research on the topic, which I presented in ASL for my final exam.

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For my research, I tried to stick to studies that separated career and volunteer firefighters, as most mix the two together. Most of the research I located was about the 2019-2020 “Black Summer” fires in Australia, which required the use of many volunteers, who are now being studied for mental health effects from the intense service they did. Nonetheless, I found enough articles that separated volunteer and career firefighters in the U.S.

There are 1,115,000 firefighters in the U.S., of which 67% are volunteer and 33% are career. 66.4% of the firefighter departments in the U.S. completely volunteer run, typically serving communities of 25,000 or fewer people. People don’t call them just for fires, though. I mentioned water rescue, but there are calls for medical, floods, natural disasters, car accidents, terrorist attacks, even technological disasters.

Career career firefighters struggle with mental health differently than volunteers: they have a high chance of becoming alcoholic, and 56% binge drink, meaning one sitting during which a person consumes 5+ alcoholic beverages. However, if a career firefighter needs access to mental health support, they can get it.

Both career and volunteer firefighters suffer from insomnia and thoughts related to suicide. In addition, volunteer firefighters are more likely to plan their suicide, attempt suicide, and are at a higher risk for suicide. They experience higher levels of depression and stress. 46% binge drink, and 10% have gotten into a car after binge drinking.

Volunteer firefighters also experience higher levels of PTSD, and there are some ideas about why. In addition to volunteering, the people who serve have full-time jobs, making it difficult to complete training. Also, volunteers are less likely to have a mental health screening before being accepted to the department, meaning past trauma and mental health concerns can become exacerbated. Furthermore, the nature of small communities means everyone knows everyone, increasing the likelihood that a volunteer firefighter is responding to a gruesome scene where someone they know is the victim.

For fear of being judged, both volunteer and career firefighters tend to refuse therapy. However, the longer a person has worked in this field, the more likely they are to request therapy. In addition to fear of stigma, volunteer firefighters struggle with the cost and matching their busy schedules with available therapy. One of the more agreeable solutions is peer support groups, in which everyone involved understands the unique culture of firefighters. Telehealth is another option, pairing firefighters with medical staff while the patient remains in their home on their schedule, and without the commute.


Haddock, Christopher Keith, et al. “Alcohol Use among Firefighters in the Central United States.” Occupational Medicine 62.8 (2012): 661-664.

Jahnke, Sara A., et al. “Firefighting and Mental Health: Experiences of Repeated Exposure to Trauma.” Work 53.4 (2016): 737-744.

Johnson, Candice C., et al. “Enhancing Mental Health Treatment for the Firefighter Population: Understanding Fire Culture, Treatment Barriers, Practice Implications, and Research Directions.” Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, vol. 51, no. 3, June 2020, pp. 304–11.

Pennington, Michelle L., et al. “Career versus Volunteer Firefighters: Differences in Perceived Availability and Barriers to Behavioral Health Care.” Psychological Services 19.3 (2022): 502.

Stanley, Ian H., et al. “Differences in Psychiatric Symptoms and Barriers to Mental Health Care between Volunteer and Career Firefighters.” Psychiatry Research 247 (2017): 236-242.

My Ethics Class: Power, Privilege, and Oppression Discussion

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Currently, I am enrolled in Interpreting Ethics, a class in which we examine models for ethical decision making and practice how we would use the Code of Professional Conduct and core values to respond to real-life situations in the interpreting field. Our last unit was about power, privilege, and oppression, and we were assigned three videos: 1) Dear White Interpreters (a panel of BIPOC CDI), 2) Town Hall with Black Interpreters from 2020, and 3) BIPOC Providers, Part 1. Not all of these videos are made public, but I do want to discuss the content and what I learned. The questions are from my professor:

List at least one thing you learned from each panel we’ve watched in this module (three in total):

In the Town Hall video with Black Interpreters in Alabama, I learned even though Black interpreters are a cultural match with Black History Month topics and plays about experiences of Black life, we also need to consider that the topics discussed may be harmful to a Black interpreter, because the topics are often harrowing. How can we better support the interpreter, make sure they are cared for, and what do they need in terms of allyship? I found this moment in the video interesting because Black interpreters are in high demand in February, despite being skilled individuals all twelve months, and the topics during Black History Month may be triggering.

In the BIPOC Providers/Interpreters video, I learned that interpreters of color believe they should be paid more than white interpreters because they bring cultural competency. After hearing the stories of what BIPOC interpreters face in all three of the videos assigned, I understand better what Benro said, a little tongue in cheek, about there being a need to pay “emotional fees.”

In the Dear White Interpreters video, I learned that there is either laziness or a miscommunication about how different cultures can join together. For example, white interpreters have asked a Black CDI how they can improve their signing skills to better understand Black consumers, but they won’t go to the Black Deaf conference, claiming it’s just for Black people. The Black CDI ensured that everyone is welcome, so either white interpreters feel like they’re intruding on another culture’s space, or they don’t really want to put in the effort to improve their skills.

In the BIPOC Providers video, one panelist noted that white interpreters may hastily label a Black Deaf person as having “low signing competency” because they use a different style or have a different culture, so the need to learn from Black communities that invite everyone in is pivotal.

How will you incorporate what you’ve learned from this module into your practice as an interpreter?

One thing I took away from the BIPOC Providers/Interpreters video is that we tend to team with the same interpreters (white women), possibly because we’re comfortable with a certain person, but should reach out to team with interpreters of color. I think it’s a chance to observe/learn from another culture on the job in a way that doesn’t affect the interpreting situation and consumers. Plus, doing something–reaching out–is allyship, I think. You’re not actually doing something for the other interpreter (advocacy), but you are supporting their goal of showcasing how skilled they are (allyship).

However, teaming with interpreters of color on most jobs is different from the specific example of a white interpreter who took a job teaming with Melva for a Cinco de Mayo festival in Chicago because they wanted to learn Spanish. Everything was in Spanish, so that white interpreter couldn’t provide access or cultural competency.

What could you say to an agency about the importance of providing interpreters that are a good cultural fit?

On the most basic level I could say that according to CPC 4.4 we are required to facilitate communication access and equality, so if I don’t understand cultural nuances or idioms, I’m not truly providing access OR equality. On a deeper level, allyship is an important tool to give other communities and cultures the space to be at the forefront. How so? Sometimes stepping aside and providing the contact information of a BIPOC interpreter or BIPOC-owned agency is the easiest way to be an ally. Otherwise, if I say it’s not my responsibility to get out of the way, I’m contributing to a racist system that oppresses, discourages, and chases off skilled interpreters of color.

Finding Zoe: A Deaf Woman’s Story of Identity, Love, and Adoption By Brandi Rarus and Gail Harris

Finding Zoe is very much a feel-good book about stars aligning. Brandi and Tim Rarus find the daughter they want in Jess and BJ’s baby girl not only because she needs a home, but because they are the right home for a deaf infant.

— thoughts by Melanie Page, originally published at Grab the Lapels

On the Beat of Truth: A Hearing Daughter’s Stories of Her Black Deaf Parents by Maxine Childress Brown

Childress Brown chooses anecdotes that allow the reader to see how being black, Deaf, poor, educated, and living before the Civil Rights Movement are all intersections where her parents exist.

— thoughts by Melanie Page, originally published at Grab the Lapels

The Hearing Eye by Catherine Coppes

“But the real issue, which Coppes describes both fairly and sternly, is how to train everyone else to communicate. Basically, communicating with a hard-of-hearing person means following polite rules, but because we love our family, know our co-workers, and trust out friends, they sometimes lapse into more casual conversation mode.”— thoughts by Melanie Page, originally published at Grab the Lapels