Firefighters don’t fight fires or respond to emergencies alone. For the safety of themselves, their peers, and others, they approach crisis situations as a team. The emergencies that firefighters respond to affect them emotionally, long after the crises are under control. Firefighters in the upper ranks have seen first-hand that job-related stress in the firehouse can lead to more serious problems like excessive alcohol, substance abuse, PTSD, and even suicide among their subordinates. Many fire chiefs and firefighters would like to see a proactive approach to reducing stress among firefighters.
One way to do that is to change the culture of firefighters to an environment where they acknowledge the effects of stress and trauma related to their jobs. To be effective, the culture change has to come from their peers.
The thought of scheduling an appointment with a doctor or psychologist after a tough call is intimidating for many firefighters. Many find that it’s far easier to open up to a peer who has had the same feelings and experiences.
Peer support groups are also called self-help groups. They are a place where peers come together to share similar experiences and feelings. In doing so, they find support among each other.
Education and Support Prevent Serious Health Problems Among Firefighters
Firefighters often make a habit of hitting the local bars to destress after difficult calls. The frequency of these trips can easily lead to alcoholism. A FEMA study showed that between 71% and 85% of firefighters drank alcohol in the previous 30 days. About 50% of firefighters admitted to binge drinking within the last month.
When we consider that the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health states that about 62% of non-firefighter males consumed alcohol within the last month, we see that firefighters engage in excessive drinking at a substantially higher rate than the average male.
How Can Firefighter Peer Support Groups Help?
Support groups exist for many different types of illnesses and tragic or difficult life events where people can come together to receive and offer support. Support groups are generally accepted as something helpful. Yet, when firefighters need help and support, they often feel stigma from people who inappropriately judge them as being mentally and emotionally weak.
In truth, support groups and peer support groups for first responders are just as effective as they are for any other population. Support groups are effective for reducing anxiety, improving self-esteem, and creating an overall sense of well-being. Most members of peer groups report that they’ve gained a sense of empowerment because they know that they are taking steps to help themselves.
Creating Peer Support Groups for Firefighters and Other First Responders
Once you start talking about starting a peer support group for firefighters, you may find that peers begin coming forth with their own stories of dealing with trauma and stress from emergency calls. This is a prime time to Invite their suggestions for getting a peer support group started and enlist their help.
The best place to find members for a peer support group is right inside your station house. On the chance that there isn’t enough interest, reach out to neighboring fire station houses or other first responders and see if you can gather at least a few people to start with.
It also helps to advertise the group in print and on social media to attract potential members. Be sure to inform the staff at the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) that a group is starting up, so they can refer others to the group.
Attendance for support groups is voluntary, so the size of the group will fluctuate some. The group should be large enough to get some good discussions going, but small enough to give everyone a chance to participate and share their story. The ideal size is about 8-12 members. If the group grows larger than that, it’s best to start another group.
Getting Your Peer Support Group Up and Running
Peer support groups need to have some type of order. Choose someone to fill the role of support facilitator or group leader. The facilitator doesn’t act as a therapist. Rather the leader facilitates discussions so that all members of the group have a chance to speak. Leaders with good facilitation skills let the group do their own work while keeping the environment respectful and empathetic.
It’s helpful to have a few other ground rules like having a time limit of 1-2 minutes for introductions, starting and stopping the meetings on time, and keeping discussions about issues that are current and bothering them in the here and now. A few basic rules that everyone agrees on help everyone to feel safe.
Formats for support groups vary quite a bit, so there’s room for flexibility. Peer support teams can either be open or closed. They can last for a specific period of time or be ongoing. Some groups prefer to follow some kind of outline with a specified goal, while others run loosely with lots of time for supportive discussions and exchanging helpful resources.
The group will need to find a location for holding their support groups. Sometimes a location off the station house premises is a good choice. Be sure to communicate to the group on the date, time, and location of future meetings.
Top Tips for Peer Support Group Success
Here’s a few tips to get your peer support group off to a great start:
Those who need professional help will find valuable counseling and support through Frontline Responder Services with locations in New Jersey and Sacramento, California. Current and retired first responders with first-person experience counsel their peers. When alcoholism and addiction are involved the therapists at Frontline will help them detox, recover, and return to work.
There’s no escaping the stress that accompanies first responder jobs like being a firefighter. However, firefighters can learn about the ways that trauma and stress affect them and take steps to reduce symptoms of depression, PTSD, and other mental health issues. No one will be able to identify with them more than the firefighters that they serve with every day. They perform their daily work as a team. It makes perfect sense that they’d work as a team towards healing. If you want information or help with a group in your area feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have a ton of experience with starting and maintaining peer support groups, and I'd be willing to help.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Lamplugh is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He was the Chief Executive Officer with 360 Wellness Inc and currently the Vice President of Responder Services ofFrontline Responder Services at Advanced Health & Education and Cedar Point Recovery. Lamplugh is also nationally recognized in Crisis Stress Intervention through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Lamplugh hosts his own talk show called "Firefighter Wellness Radio"with Fire Engineering. He has helped thousands of firefighters, police officers, veterans, EMS personnel, and civilians nationwide find help for addiction, alcoholism, PTSD, and mental health support. Mark has been chosen as one of the Board of Directors at One World For Life (To head up Communication and the Health & Safety section). He can be reached for comment email@example.com.