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The role of occupational identity in negotiating traumatic experiences: the case of a rural fire department

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Pages 313-332 | Received 03 Jun 2016, Accepted 15 Feb 2017, Published online: 19 May 2017


Firefighters are routinely exposed to situations involving contact with deceased or injured children, burned and seriously injured bodies, and high-uncertainty calls. Thus, many firefighters suffer debilitating consequences including depression, dysfunctional drinking, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Using an identity tensions framework, we sought to understand the challenges firefighters encounter as they cope with exposure to traumatic events. We interviewed 27 members of a rural fire department and used a constant comparative method to analyze their responses. We found trauma was induced when occupational identity intersected futile situations and those involving children; tensions emerged between traditional and newer, emergent firefighting cultures; and firefighters experience tensions in negotiating how and when to express emotion. Based on these findings, we offer a number of practical implications centering on an occupational identity tensions framework to encourage reflexivity in firefighters and moving beyond older, enduring stereotypes of what it means to be a firefighter.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

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