Firefighters are sometimes required to be in some uncomfortable places to do their job. Those who are pursuing a career in the fire service wonder if they can handle all aspects of the job. If you are claustrophobic, does that mean you can’t be a firefighter?
You can still be a firefighter with claustrophobia, depending on how severe and debilitating it is. Claustrophobia may only affect certain parts of being a firefighter and it may be possible to overcome your fears.
Let’s talk about what claustrophobia is and how it may affect your ability to perform the tasks required as a firefighter. We will also look at some resources to help you work to overcome this issue.
Your # 1 priority is keeping your family safe. As a firefighter, I recommend everyone has updated smoke detectors that don’t require battery changes, like these ones from Kidde, a fire extinguisher, like this one from Amerex, and a fire escape ladder if you have bedrooms above the first floor, I recommend this one from Hausse.
For more info on becoming a firefighter read: How to Become a Firefighter: The Complete Guide
What Is Claustrophobia?
We have all heard of different fears or “phobias” such as arachnophobia (fear of spiders) or acrophobia (fear of heights). Claustrophobia is one of the more common fears and it is essentially the fear of small, confined spaces. This can affect people to varying degrees.
Claustrophobia is believed to be triggered by a traumatic incident involving feeling trapped or confined, though not everyone who suffers from it has this experience. Some people with a mild version may just be slightly uncomfortable in a small space, whereas those whose fear is more severe may avoid any confined situations like airplanes, elevators, cars in traffic, or even feel compelled to always stand near an exit!
When a situation triggers someone’s claustrophobia, they can feel symptoms such as:
- Feeling anxiety or panic
- Fast heart rate
- Nauseous (the need to throw up)
- Trouble breathing
How This Can Effect Firefighting
As a firefighter, you will be expected to be in some situations that may not be comfortable. If you have trouble with small, tight spaces and feeling trapped, that could alter your ability to do what is required of you.
But it really depends on how bad your fears are and how you handle these fears over the long term.
The Self Contained Breathing Apparatus or SCBA is one of the best firefighting advancements over the last 50 years. Have you seen the air tanks that firefighters wear on their back while fighting fires? That’s an SCBA!
The SCBA prevents firefighters from being exposed to smoke, dangerous chemicals produced during a fire and the super-heated gases during a fire. It provides them with clean air to breathe while they work to extinguish the fire.
To learn more about SCBAs, read this article.
In order for the clean air to get from your SCBA to your lungs, firefighters wear a full face mask. This mask also protects their eyes and face from the heat.
The SCBA mask can make many new firefighters feel claustrophobic. With all the heavy gear they need to wear and the intense physical work, feeling out of breath is quite common. But feeling out of breath with a mask on is different. It’s hard to describe, but it takes some getting used to.
There are some people who never have this issue, but it is quite common and something to be aware of. There are plenty of great firefighters who initially were uncomfortable working while wearing an SCBA, so don’t worry if you experience this. Most people are able to work past this.
The confidence course is meant to do just that; make you more confident in your equipment and firefighter skills. No two confidence courses are alike, but they are designed to be difficult and uncomfortable.
My experience with the confidence course is being in full firefighter gear (turnouts, SCBA, tools, etc.), face mask blacked out (so you can’t even see your hand in front of your face.), crawling on your hands and knees. The course is set up with small tunnels and openings for you to make your way through.
Many of the openings are much smaller than you would think you can fit through, but you must proceed nonetheless. Over, under, around, through. Wires setup to tangle you up, so you get stuck. It is set up to test your ability to stay calm. They are simulating that you are in a structure fire where part of the building collapses around you and you need to get your self out. The hardest part of these is staying calm, working through each obstacle, without getting frustrated, which isn’t easy.
As you can guess, the confidence course is tough if you are claustrophobic. But to be honest, I think most everyone who goes through these courses feels what could be described as mild or moderate claustrophobia, even if they don’t have these fears regularly. It’s up to you to keep it together and get out.
Of the many things firefighters do when they aren’t fighting fires, technical rescue is one of them. Confined space rescue is one of these specialties. This is exactly what it sounds like.
“Confined space rescue is a subset of technical rescue operations that involves the rescue and recovery of victims trapped in a confined space or in a place only accessible through confined spaces, such as underground vaults, storage silos, storage tanks, or sewers.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confined_space_rescue
Confined space rescue (called Con-Space) is a specialty that not all firefighters take part in. It requires special training and certifications and not all fire departments even have a Con-Space team.
Those with claustrophobia may not want to be a part of this type of rescue. You would be required to be in some tight spaces. However, in my experience, if you can handle a tough confidence course, Con-Space rescue is no worse.
The Worm Tube
Another part of firefighter training is the worm tube. Not all departments do this training and it doesn’t really simulate a realistic scenario. But it is something a new firefighter may have to do to prove their confidence and abilities.
It is called the worm tube because the tunnel or tube that you have to crawl through is so small that the only way to get through is to move like an inchworm. 1 inch at a time. These can be tough, but again it’s mostly in your head. Watch this video for an idea of what a worm tube is like.
Managing Your Symptoms
According to an article on Webmd.com, claustrophobia can be overcome with the right treatment.
You should talk to your doctor about how to manage your claustrophobia symptoms.
Healthline.com says that while many people who experience symptoms of claustrophobia choose to avoid situations that can set off this fear, that may not be the best idea for managing this on a larger scale.
“It’s also important not to resist the attack when it’s happening. You may want to stop the attack from happening, but if you’re unable to stop it, your anxiety may increase and make the attack worse. Instead, accept that the attack is occurring, remind yourself that it’s OK to experience these feelings, reassure yourself that the attack isn’t life-threatening, and remember that it will pass.”Healthline.com
To read more about claustrophobia, the methods of treatment and how to manage your symptoms, read this article.
Even if some of the things I talked about in this article seem scary, don’t immediately decide that you can’t be a firefighter. Your claustrophobia may be able to manage and overcome. The situations that a firefighter can find themselves in both on the job and during intense training can be daunting, but humans can do some amazing things. So, I encourage you to work through your fears and pursue your dreams!