Alcoholism & First Responders: 10 Must-Know Facts

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It’s a common scene. You’re off duty, hanging out with your buddies and throwing back a few beers. Or maybe you’re off a hard shift and unwind with a drink at home. A casual drink doesn’t classify as alcoholism, but it becomes the excuse for those falling too far down that road.

“I’m just hanging with the guys.” But you pound beer after beer faster than them and then drink more when you’re home. You hardly remember the night and who was there.

“I’m just unwinding after a long shift.” But you’re drinking like a fish, all alone, and tossing once-full empty bottles, half-missing the barrel. If anyone questions you, you become enraged and retreat further into seclusion.

These examples are too common. While alcoholism is a widespread issue—alcohol is the leading preventable cause of death in the US—it’s got a particular relation to first responder life.

Alcoholism and First Responders

Compared to the general population, alcohol consumption is higher among first responders. While casual drinking can be done socially or alone and often remain under control, the risk of alcoholism is higher for first responders due to a significantly higher rate of trauma and stress.

When alcohol is used as a vice or even a method to unwind after high stress events, the risk of addiction or abuse increases. With a first responder lifestyle (the hours, the trauma exposure, the pressure), stress is greater than the average civilian, raising the risk of alcoholism for those who use drinking as a coping mechanism.

Since first responders are exposed to trauma on a daily basis, the risk of PSTI, depression, and alcohol or substance abuse as a coping mechanism is increased. While not every first responder succumbs to these effects, it’s important to be aware of some information surrounding alcoholism and first responders.

10 Must-Know Facts

Since April is Alcohol Awareness Month, we’re dropping some must-know facts about alcoholism and first responders. Keep these in mind for yourself and your brothers and sisters in the field.

  1. There are more than 178,000 alcohol-related deaths each year in the US (NIAAA, 2024)
  2. Alcohol affects brain function by causing thoughts to be unclear, disrupting coordination, and changing mood and behavior. (Alcohol’s Effects on Health, NIAAA)
  3. Misuse of alcohol increases risk of “liver disease, heart disease, depression, stroke, and stomach bleeding, as well as cancers of the oral cavity, esophagus, larynx, pharynx, liver, colon, and rectum.” It may also cause problems managing “diabetes, high blood pressure, pain, and sleep disorders.” It’s also been linked to some cancers. (Alcohol and the Human Body, NIAAA, 2024)
  4. Firefighters have the highest risk of binge drinking among the population. (Norms about Alcohol Use among US Firefighters, PubMed Central, 2022)
  5. In a 2015 study, more than 85% of firefighters consumed alcohol, nearly half reported excessive drinking, and approximately one third reported episodic heavy use when off duty.
  6. Volunteer firefighters reported alcohol use at a rate of 70%; 45% reported binge drinking. (Emergency And First Responders And Alcohol Abuse, Alcohol Rehab Guide)
  7. High risk of alcohol and drug use was observed in as much as 40% of EMTs and paramedics. (same as #6)
  8. “Of 112 professional firefighters surveyed, 80% reported alcohol use with 56% exhibiting ‘alcohol binge drinking behavior’ and 14% exhibiting ‘hazardous drinking behavior.’” (Posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, work-related trauma exposure, and substance use in first responders, Science Direct, 2022)
  9. PTSD symptoms significantly relate to alcohol and drug use in first responders. (same as #8)
  10. Hazardous alcohol use is higher among first responders and armed forces than in health care workers. (The prevalence of hazardous and harmful alcohol use across trauma-exposed occupations: A meta-analysis and meta-regression, Science Direct, 2021)

It’s important to note that, while the more recent studies followed mostly fire fighters, all first responder positions are at risk of alcohol abuse due to the nature of the job (stress, trauma, etc.).

Signs of Alcoholism

We care about our first responders, so it’s important to share the signs of alcoholism. The earlier the intervention, the more likely a responder can recover.

If you suspect someone you care about is suffering from alcohol addiction, watch for cravings or loss of control over how, when, and what that person drinks. An alcoholic is always thinking about the next drink and has a hard time stopping. He or she will build up a tolerance to alcohol so that it takes more to feel better. That person will also work his or her schedule around drinking.

You may notice a physical reaction when an alcoholic tries to stop. Watch for symptoms like sweating, shaking, or nausea. This is a difficult time for an alcoholic, so give as much support as you can and seek assistance from someone like First Responders First or reach out to the Alcohol Rehab Guide (877-624-1853) for more help and resources.

A Better Path to Wellness

We want to keep our first responders well in body and mind. That means avoiding unnecessary risks, such as alcoholism, and watching each other’s backs, on and off duty. We can still unwind, celebrate, and socialize, but we should help each other to do so responsibly. Let’s continue to spread awareness and encourage each other to a better path of wellness.