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Research Summaries

The Fort McMurray fire’s effect on firefighter mental health

Keywords: Anxiety, Depression, Mental Health, Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

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Why was the study done?

In May 2016, firefighters battled a fire that threatened the town of Fort McMurray, Alberta. The firefighters involved were exposed to both the physical and the emotional trauma of a devastating fire. A cohort of these firefighters was examined to determine the long term effects of the incident.

The current study had two goals:

  • Estimate the prevalence of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety in the firefighters deployed to the Fort McMurray fire.
  • Determine cut-off points on mental health measures that are tailored to the firefighter sector, especially those who go through a similar experience.

What was done in the study?

A cohort was created by recruiting firefighters from Alberta that were deployed to the Fort McMurray fire. A group of 998 firefighters completed mental health measures at recruitment, winter/spring 2017-2018, and winter 2018-2019. Participants that scored above cut-off scores on the PTSD, depression, and anxiety measures were invited to participate in structured clinical interviews that were carried out from August 2019 to February 2020. A total of 192 participants completed the interview.

What did we find out?

  • Of the 192 people interviewed, 127 were diagnosed with at least one mental health disorder (PTSD 40.6%; Anxiety 30.7%; Depression 28.5%; Substance Use 23.4%).
  • Based on the data collected from interviewed participants, the researchers estimate that the prevalence rates in the cohort (998 participants) are:
    • PTSD 21.4%
    • Anxiety 15.8%
    • Depression 14.3%
    • Substance Use 17.3%
  • The study suggests that researchers establish cut-off points on psychological measures that are valid for the population being studied. For firefighters, the main adjustments would be lowering the cut-off level for PTSD measures and raising it for anxiety measures.

Where do we go from here?

This examination of a group of firefighters who faced a singular event has provided lots of information on how firefighters may react mentally to this type of event. The researchers followed up with the participants for years, looking at the long-term consequences of this incident. This study combined self-report measures with diagnostic interviews to better understand how many firefighters were experiencing mental health disorders. There were some limitations. On average, there was a year in between the last screen and the interview. Symptoms or changes in symptoms could have been caused or modified by intervening events. The study does support previous research that lists the prevalence rates of mental health disorders in firefighters as higher than those seen in the general population. The suggested adjustments to measure cut-off scores for this specific population may make identifying mental health issues in firefighters more accurate in the future.

The original wording of the study was changed and condensed for the current research summary.

Original Study

Cherry, N., Galarneau, JM., Melnyk, A. & Patten, S. (2020). Prevalence of mental ill-health in a cohort of first responders attending the Fort McMurray fire. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.

Summary prepared by Kossick, E. Reviewed & Edited by Barootes, B. & Cherry, N.


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