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Firefighter Peer Support: What have we been missing?

When I attended the Illinois Fire Fighter Peer Support (ILFFPS) 3 day training in September 2015, it started as any training would. The instructor began by introducing himself but after that, it was clear that this was different from other classes. This was a training for those who wanted to learn what it meant to be a Firefighter Peer Supporter.

Primary Instructor Lt. Matt Olson began sharing his story; a story that involved multiple difficult calls and traumatic incidents at work and how this began a downward spiral in his emotional health. FF/Engineer Joshua Jessup was the Secondary Instructor who shared next. He continued the discussion by talking about his difficult experiences both relationally and professionally. Then the real learning began.

Each participant was asked to share why they were attending this course. The normal platitudes and brief introductions were dismissed for real interaction and emotional vulnerability. Matt and Josh’s willingness to show their vulnerability was rewarded by the participants doing the same. One by one, stories were shared. A veteran who now is in the Fire Service shared about his experiences and multiple times through his stories said, “I’ve never shared this with anyone!”  Another Firefighter shared a gruesome story that was his worst call and repeated those same words, “I’ve never shared this with anyone!”  A retired Firefighter shared about his recent bout with alcoholism and his newfound sobriety.

Each of the Firefighters in attendance shared about the difficult circumstances he or she had faced. These stories weren’t forced. They simply poured out as Firefighters started to describe why they were in attendance at this class. In fact, the second day one Firefighter said “I spent a bunch of time last night wondering where my emotions came from and how those stories started pouring out”. Many of us agreed with his assessment. The whole process was a reminder that Firefighters all over the world are dealing with difficult circumstances.

I was in Illinois for this training because I was considering bringing the training down to Palm Beach County Florida in order to create a team of Firefighters who are able to meet the immediate emotional, spiritual, and mental needs of those they are working with on a daily basis. I knew going into it that it wasn’t a miracle cure for our Firefighters, but I also knew that we need a group of people who can help bridge the gap to our professional counselors and therapists. After the introductions concluded and the agenda was explained, the training started. We learned how to look for issues that our co-workers could be facing. We then heard some examples of questions that we could ask and what kind of responses we could expect. We heard answers that could be given to help those in need. We tried Peer Support with each other to see how this all plays out.  Some of the comments that kept coming up from those in attendance was “Am I able to do this?” and “I’m not sure I’m ready to help others.”

Matt and Josh continued to remind each of us to be patient. This is not something you start doing perfectly right away, but it’s important to remember that most Firefighters already do a little bit of this very naturally. We all sit in the bay, in the training room, or around the kitchen table and swap stories and notes. We all tell each other about the great electrician we know and highly recommend, the great financial advice we just received, the amazing school our kids are attending, and even about how to improve ourselves in our current position within the Fire Department. Peer Support takes this to the next level. It allows to look out for issues and to develop a comfort level that allows us to ask the important questions that will help us get to the root cause of that issue and offer assistance.

One part of the class which was emphasized by Olson and Jessup was the discussion and training from one of the ILFFPS Clinical Consultants. This is not a program put together by Firefighters with no experience who “just want to help”. This is a curriculum that has the input of experienced Firefighters and a Clinical Psychologist. Each of them has been able to give their own experience and expertise as a part of this program. The Clinical Consultant, Dr. Cody Todd, shared her knowledge with the program and has set up a course to prepare each of us to be effective Peer Supporters. We are definitely bringing this class to our Department, and we are going to be training many individuals on the basics of this concept. Our goal is to train over 200 Peer Supporters in Palm Beach County to begin assisting those in need.

There are many essential pieces to the Firefighter mental health and wellness puzzle. We need training, professional counseling, Critical Incident Stress Management, Chaplaincy, help lines, and other resources that can be offered by our departments, municipalities, and private companies. I believe that Peer Support is the most significant missing piece of this! There are many issues that will be brought by our personnel to a Peer that would never have been brought to a higher level such as the administration or EAP (counseling personnel). This allows us to help save our own and to save some who otherwise would suffer in silence.

If I’m able to get this program to a successful level in Palm Beach County, I will be excited to help our own. But that’s not enough! We need to have this kind of program established all over this country. Our Fire Service has to become proactive in helping those who need help! We cannot wait for our Firefighters to seek out professional counseling; we need to offer up front immediate help at the crew level so that our Firefighters seek out those who need the help. Each of us can notice the signs and symptoms of deeply rooted issues and offer immediate help. Matt, Josh, and Dr. Todd have established the basics to implement this type of program. Let’s begin using this to help save our own and fit in that last missing piece of the puzzle for our Brothers and Sisters so that it is available in their time of need.

Lt. Olson shared some thoughts about this program which serve to summarize the importance of what we are trying to do. “The most important thing for me is to have people leaving that class recognizing they are ready to be peer supporters.  We have learned how difficult it can be to try and connect the things they need to know clinically, emotionally, and professionally. The message I give the students is that you have already been doing this for years. Don't stress! Just continue to do the same thing. We put a name on it and will make sure others get trained to a level of comfort so they can help. It is important that we as a fire service recognize the conversations that take place will be powerful and necessary. It will be powerful and necessary because it may be keep a firefighter from struggling through his or her career. We want our firefighters to recognize that these peer supporters in our workplace are already in place and have ‘made it safe’ for them to share their stories and their struggles. Ultimately the goal of peer support is to be there for somebody who five months later, five years later, or post retirement still has things on their mind that they want to share with a peer. Our goal is to give them a place where they are accepted, welcome, understood, and recognized as normal.”

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Comment by James Detweiler on September 20, 2015 at 7:58pm
Thank you Jeremy....very insightful article.....

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