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Firefighters and Addiction: The Value of Peer Support

When we think of firefighters or any other type of first responder, it often reminds us of the brotherhood that they share. Early in their careers, firefighters learn to lean on one another inside and outside of the station house. For many of them, there’s nothing like hitting the local bar to decompress after a tough call. Some firefighters can manage the stress that accompanies the trauma that they see every day, and others are not as resilient. Drinking alcohol or using illicit substances often start out as a release or coping mechanism for firefighters dealing with the emotions of job-related trauma, which can quickly lead to addiction. 

When addiction takes hold, firefighters worry that seeking treatment for the disease of addiction may make them appear weak or cost them their jobs, so many of them are reluctant to reach out for help. That’s where peer support can make a crucial difference. Firefighters’ peers are the voice of identification and experience and are the best people to offer the needed empathy and support to lead their peers to effective treatment. The natural brotherhood that is inherent in every station house is one of the biggest assets when it comes to helping firefighters recover from addictions. 

Job-Related Stress Leads to Substance Abuse

In a FEMA study of firefighters related to alcohol use, 85% of career firefighters and 71% of volunteer firefighters reported drinking within the past 30 days. The study included 656 male firefighters from 24 departments in Missouri. Firefighters in both groups reported drinking between 10-12 days per month. When we compare these results to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health of total males consuming alcohol within the last month, which was only 62%, we learn that alcohol use among firefighting men is substantially higher.

Many fire station houses are starting to take a proactive stance in helping their fellow firefighters deal with job-related stress in healthy ways. For firefighters who succumb to the throes of addiction, embarrassment and worry about losing their jobs prevent many firefighters from asking for help, even though stressors from the job started the cycle of drinking or drug abuse. Many firefighters lack the support they need to seek options for recovery, or they lack the right kind of support.

Today’s firefighters are learning that one of the best supports for firefighters dealing with job-related stress and addictions lies within their ranks, in the form of formalized peer support.

Peer Support is Part of Evidence-Based Treatment 

Many studies in various areas have given merit to peer support as an evidence-based treatment. Studies on veteran groups and others show that peer support has many benefits including reducing hospital visits and increasing coping skills for affected people and their families. Peer support is also part of the 12th step of 12-step programs.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Department of Veterans Affairs, and over 40 states recognize peer support as an evidence-based intervention.

Peer support leads to person-centered wellness where the focus is not just on reducing symptoms or complying with a treatment plan. Peer support has been shown to help people increase their level of engagement in treatment and services and foster better and faster recovery. People who’ve had the benefit of peer support report using acute care services less often and having an improved quality of life.

Core Competencies of Peer Support Services

A core competency is the capacity to easily perform a role or function. Peer supporters often receive training in core competencies that include a knowledge base, skills, and the proper attitudes that they need to perform their jobs.

There are four core competencies for peer support:

  1. Recovery-oriented-helps people learn multiple paths to recovery and helps them choose which is best for them.
  2. Person-centered-services are identified by the person in recovery and align with their hopes, goals, and preferences-rather than those of the peer supporter.
  3. Relationship-focused-the relationship between the person and the peer supporter is the foundation, which is respectful, trusting, empathetic, collaborative, and mutual, and includes much active listening.
  4. The trauma-informed-strengths-based framework that emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety, and creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment.

What is a Peer Supporter?

A peer supporter is someone who has lived experience and is willing to establish a supportive relationship with a peer as part of their recovery process. Peer supporters help people find strength as they share their own experiences in dealing with trials. Understanding how a peer was able to endure difficulty and move forward gives them hope.  

Peer supporters use active listening skills to have open and honest conversations that are free of judgment and guilt. A peer support relationship helps both people to connect on a deeper level. Before long, the person needing support realizes that change is possible. Peer support amplifies treatment because it helps to give people the confidence they need to seek treatment and follow through. 

Peer Support is a Natural Extension of the Brotherhood of Firefighters

Peer support is a natural extension of the existing brotherhood of firefighters. Firefighters and their families instantly become new families together. Only another firefighter can truly identify how it feels to witness a death, extract bodies from an auto accident, or rescue people from a burning building.

Firefighters help people in their communities every day. Peer support gives them the chance to support a fellow firefighter during a difficult time of need, like dealing with addictions.

Fortunately, the word is getting out about the mental and emotional risks of firefighters, and some regions of the country are now actively promoting peer support programs for firefighters. Mental Health America offers a toolkit for people and organizations that want to establish a peer support program.

Specialized Programs for Firefighters and Other First Responders

Seeing the need for programs that meet the specialized needs for clinical services and peer support for first responders, New England Recovery & Wellness initiated "Shields of Honor" program at their facility in Concord, New Hampshire. All "Shields of Honor" programs are led by current or retired first responders to give clients a comfort level with receiving treatment. New England Recovery & Wellness offers comprehensive evaluations, treatment programs, aftercare, and family programs for firefighters and other first responders who struggle with addictions. Most importantly, the programs offer peer support by active or retired first responders—a distinction that makes a valuable difference. 

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 of "Shields of Honor" program for Amethyst Recovery Center and New England Recovery & Wellness. 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 hundreds 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 mark@360wellness.org.

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