This paper reports on research into the characteristics of emergency rescue workers, with a focus on psychological distress. We present the results of a study of volunteers from the Italian national civil protection programme. A questionnaire was administered to 2,576 subjects from all over Italy. Most respondents were men, mostly unemployed, whose average level of education was higher than that among most Italian volunteers. Many were poorly endowed with basic skills, with large differences according to geography. Many expected to convert their volunteer activities into permanent jobs. Using this data, we employed a logistical regression model to analyse the risk of low, moderate and severe psychological distress symptoms, including anxiety and panic attacks, during rescue operations. The results indicate that some rescuers are particularly vulnerable to distress. The highest risk factors pertained to volunteers from southern Italy whose training is inadequate, who have little experience of emergency work and who play subordinate roles in small teams that lack psychological support services.