The loss of firefighter A.J. Issacs in June of 2019 showcases the relentless and often secretive nature of addiction. Issacs, 47, was a father, husband and a well-respected, 25-year firefighter in Winter Park, Florida. None of Issacs’ colleagues knew of his struggle with addiction.
As the supervisor in charge of drug inventory, Issacs had access to substances and was able to acquire and use more than 740 vials of ketamine, Versed, morphine and Valium from 2016 to 2018. An autopsy revealed Issacs overdosed on a combination of ketamine and Versed.
Stories such as Issacs’ forces fire crews around the country to consider the reality of addiction. Substance use disorders impact firefighters who have made a career and reputation in the community just as much as it affects the people they help on the job every day. Ignoring the fact that addiction can affect those whose job it is to help others is a risk that no one should take.
Fire Fighters and Substance Use Disorder
Firefighters have a high risk of developing a substance use disorder due to the high stress related to their work. Firefighters exposed to traumatic situations often struggle with PTSD and anxiety disorders. In a 2012 study, 58% of firefighters involved in the study participated in binge drinking within the month before the study. The rates of sleep deprivation, depression and substance use were significant among the 112 firefighters assessed. When these psychological factors are part of a fire fighter’s everyday life, it can be tempting for them to self-medicate with substances — particularly so if their friends or family partake in substance misuse.
In 2004, an initiative emerged dedicated to improving the wellbeing of firefighters. The initiative is called “16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives.” An important aspect of the initiative is providing access to psychological support and counseling services. The need for such access to services became apparent after September 11th. PTSD, suicide rates and substance abuse increased in the aftermath of September 11th and continues to be an issue for firefighters throughout the country.
How to Help
Many firefighters may be hesitant to ask about their fellow firefighters’ personal lives, but showing an interest and indicating they care is a simple way to help take care of crew members. Paying attention to external behaviors is an easy way to watch out for a firefighter dealing with addiction or mental health challenges. If someone suddenly appears withdrawn or distant, or they’re talking about sleep disturbance or changes in energy levels, it is a good idea to check on them to make sure they’re handling their challenges in a healthy way.
Being aware of how mental health issues develop also helps firefighters watch out for their crew members. PTSD can emerge in different ways, particularly following a traumatic call or string of events. Substance use disorders can manifest in a variety of ways, but changes in behavior and mood as well as physical signs such as sudden weight loss, are indicators of substance abuse.
Unfortunately, people struggling with these issues can easily hide them from others, as was the case with A.J. Issacs. The more firefighters talk about their mental health or come forward about substance misuse, the more firefighters can get the help they need and healthily return to helping their community.
The IAFF Center of Excellence provides firefighters with the treatment they need to manage their addictions and any co-occurring mental health conditions. If you are, or know of, a firefighter ready to address a substance use disorder, contact the IAFF Center of Excellence today. For individuals outside of the fire service, the Orlando Recovery Center helps clients who are ready to address their substance abuse. Take the first step toward a healthier future by reaching out to the IAFF Center of Excellence or the Orlando Recovery Center today.
Ray, Karla. “Winter Park firefighter dies after years of secret drug use, officials say.” WFTV, June 27, 2019. Accessed July 5, 2019.
Carey, Mary; et al. “Sleep Problems, Depression, Substance Use, Social Bonding, and Quality of Life in Professional Firefighters.” NCBI, August 2011. Accessed July 5, 2019.
Wilmoth, Janet. “Trouble In Mind.” NFPA, June 2014. Accessed July 5, 2019.