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Firefighters & Substance Abuse: How job stress can manifest into problems with alcohol, drugs

Posted at 5:12 PM, May 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-10 19:28:44-04

(WXYZ) —

The City of Detroit is sounding the alarm about firefighters abusing alcohol on the job, and promising to offer more resources to help cope with stress following two separate crashes where department members were believed to be under the influence.

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The problems and stresses Detroit firefighters encounter daily are a big reason some are turning to drinking and drugs, according to national research. One retired firefighter is now opening up about the pain many face.

For more than 33 years, Dave Parnell, a retired senior engine operator and firefighter was on the front lines in Detroit.

“You’re human beings. You have family issues just like everyone else. You even have preachers that are alcoholics. Why? Because of what they see and hear every day,” said Parnell.

Sources tell us after two recent drinking and driving crashes involving DFD personnel, both are no longer employed with the city.

"I got guys that said, 'Dave, I've seen more bodies in a month than you got years on the job.' I mean, that's got to take its toll on you, that's got to take a toll on your family,” said Parnell.

But a larger review of the environment within firehouses has found an urgent need for more funding and resources, which are being prepared for employee assistance programs.

The reasons include, but aren’t limited to human suffering, pressure from COVID, death, intense work loads and making life and death decisions.

“How hard is it for a firefighter who has seen too much? It’s very difficult. We’ve had guys quit,” he said. "We said, 'come back to the firehouse' and they said 'no. I’m going to catch the bus. Here’s my coat and gear. I’m barefoot and don’t care. I’m done,'” said Parnell.

Parnell says our city’s bravest often don’t have the time nor the comfort level to ask for help, working out trauma and other lasting impacts of the job. He agrees, however, citizens must have a force that’s always ready and be able to give 100 percent.

"People don't understand that because they always talk about boots on the ground, and that's when the military goes somewhere else. Well, police, fire and EMS have boots on the ground every single day and they live here. It's the same kind of stress. You're looking at accidents where you're looking at kids mangled, well people in general mangled, kids, babies, adults, and you're trying to process all of that. And now tomorrow I got to go home, I got to take care of the wife, I've got to take care of the kids, I got to take care of the parents. I gotta, I gotta, I gotta. And you're telling me, 'well, I need you down here to talk to me.' Well, I don't really have time to talk to you," said Parnell.

According to the Addiction Center, across the U.S. pre-pandemic, as many as 29 percent engaged in alcohol abuse and about 10 percent abused prescription drugs.

Substance Abuse Study by WXYZ-TV Channel 7 Detroit on Scribd

Other pre-pandemic studies have also pointed to an issue with alcohol use among firefighters.

“They want to think they are different and they deal with stress no one else does. They are courageous and brave. But, when it comes to psychological stress, there’s only so much someone can take,” said Dr. Howard Belkin, an occupational psychiatrist who counsels first responders.

“No matter how tough you are, things you see stay in your brain. No matter how tough you are, they have to be released,” said Dr. Belkin.

Courtesy IAFF Recovery Center

Looking back, Parnell says his time spent clinging to his own faith and praying helped make the difference even after the loss of his wife.

And to his brothers and sisters fighting fires each and every day, he says asking for a day off or someone to talk to is crucial and not a sign of weakness.

“At some point, the brain has to rest, but you don’t have time for that because you’re working a 24 hour period,“ said Parnell.

Both the city and union are declining comment, until their internal review is made public. That’s expected to happen in the next 1-2 weeks.

Resources that can help firefighters in crisis:

- National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255

- SAMHSA’s National Helpline – 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

All Clear Foundation

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

International Association of Fire Fighters

- Volunteer Firefighter Alliance