Health & Safety

Peer Support Crucial to the Fire Service

By Dan DeGryse

Firefighting comes with access to a storied history and an instant family.

That family works together every day to help people who are suffering. We live at the firehouse, we socialize outside of work, and our families are happy to lean on one another for support when we’re aware that someone is struggling. The same scenarios play out daily in communities across the country.

We’re a brotherhood, a family–but too often, this isn’t enough. That’s not for a lack of trying; it’s because we’re not properly trained.

I’m happy to report that peer-to-peer connections in regard to mental health in the fire service are starting to get the attention they deserve.

Twice so far this year, I joined members of the International Association of Fire Fighters Labor/EAP Committee to discuss how we can help develop peer support networks across the country. It’s not a process we’re reinventing; we’re just expanding how we use it.

Peer support helps us feel safe, like we can trust someone from the same background with the information we hold near and dear to our hearts. It also offers an open and honest forum for answers and advice based on shared experiences.

Some of us feel comfortable talking to one another about our marital and financial issues, or about a tough incident that happened the day before. But there’s still a struggle to get firefighters and their families to openly share. The goal now is to have fire houses across the country full of trained people who know how to respond and refer their brothers and sisters to the right places if more help is needed.

You can find peer support in many places, including 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Peer support is actually spelled out in the 12th step: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”

During the early days, peer supporters were the firefighters who had gotten sober and were in recovery, typically from alcohol. They became 12-steppers or peer support for others on the job who needed to talk or who wanted an AA sponsor from within the fire service.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) developed in the 1970s and expanded in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Peer support grew after major events such as Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. As part of their training, peer supporters were educated about local resources, responsibilities regarding confidentiality and other topics, including what to do if a person they were helping showed signs of suicidal ideations. The most important lesson peer supporters still learn is how to listen.

Some peer supporters worry early on in their training that they might say the wrong things to a coworker. But I try to tell people to apply what they’d want to hear. Eighty percent of what I tell people who come to me for help is what they’re telling me–I simply may reword what they’ve said and offer it back to them. The other 20 percent of what I tell them is advice based on my experience and education. People, especially firefighters, aren’t dumb; they need support and encouragement, just like anyone else.

Peer support is a major component of the Rosecrance Florian Program, which launched in 2014 in Rockford, Illinois. Florian is an inpatient program that specializes in treating firefighters and paramedics for substance abuse, as well as job-related mental health issues such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety.

Members of Illinois Fire Fighter Peer Support regularly volunteer their time to meet with our clients on Tuesday nights at the Rosecrance Harrison Campus in Rockford. The peer supporter typically starts out by sharing his or her story, and then clients often open up about their own struggles. The goal here is to get a conversation going so clients can identify with the peers and see themselves being successful in recovery.

Marc Doty, assistant chief with the Sycamore (IL) Fire Department, met with Florian clients two times so far. He joined the peer support network back in April 2014 after dealing with personal issues of his own.

The great thing about Marc and the other ILFFPS volunteers is their variety of life experience. Marc didn’t go through substance abuse treatment, but he spoke about issues personal to him such as divorce, adolescent self-harm and professional stress.

Something Marc said to the group really resonated as to why fire service peer support is so important: “Nobody prepares you for this stuff.”

My good friend Tim Gibbons, a retired battalion chief with 35 years’ experience with the Chicago Fire Department, also had a great group session with Florian clients back in March.

I’ve known Tim for nearly three decades. By age 23, his drinking and drug use had taken over both his work and personal life. Tim sought help from a treatment center and today has 30 years of continuous sobriety.

The clients could relate to his story. He talked about how drinking was a big social outlet in the fire service.

“It never occurred to me not to drink,” he said. “I was just going to do it better.”

He was thoughtful and encouraging, telling the group, “This can be your last treatment center.” Tim acknowledged that the choice not to use can be difficult, but the days you don’t use start to pile up.

One client who was nearing his discharge date asked Tim how long it would take him to regain the trust of people at the fire house he had let down because of his behavior.

Tim told him he was worthy of their forgiveness, but he had to “show up” to regain that trust.

I can’t stress enough how much that peer support means to our Florian clients. We have the ability to do two sessions a week at Rosecrance, so we’re trying to find more peers who are willing to volunteer their time.

Illinois Fire Fighter Peer Support is a great resource if you’re looking to give back and help your fellow firefighters. The group offers three-day training sessions for people who want to get involved. Call ILFFPS’s toll-free number at 855-907-8776 or visit ilffps.org for more information.

Another component of the Florian Program is raising awareness about behavioral health in the fire service and helping connect fire departments with the right resources to support the men and women in their own communities. Rosecrance hosted an informational “Reading Smoke” seminar back in December that was attended by 120 firefighters, fire chiefs, chaplains and other personnel. We did behavioral health awareness trainings for the Rockford Fire Department in February, and we visited fire departments in Boston, Rhode Island and New York in March.

Peer support has expanded within bigger fire departments like those, oftentimes out of necessity. Pre-9/11, the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) had about five staff members working for its counseling program. The program today has more than 100 employees and peer supporters.

FDNY, like Illinois Fire Fighter Peer Support, promotes a continuous education model for its peer supporters, meaning they have to complete additional education and training each year.

In Chicago, our Gatekeepers Program that started about two years ago has about 45 formally trained peer supporters who participate in ongoing trainings and education.

One challenge Chicago and many other departments face is supporting retirees who’ve left their departments and don’t feel connected or don’t reach out to connect anymore. Linking retirees to peer support networks as they are established has to be a priority.

The International Association of Fire Fighters’ plan is to train the trainers who would then teach a two-day training program at any of the 3,200 locals across the country to develop their own peer support programs.

Our message through all of this is let’s not be afraid to talk about this stuff. I can’t carry that message alone, and neither can Rosecrance. But we can teach more people each day, one person at a time.

Dan DeGryse is a battalion chief with the Chicago (IL) Fire Department and director of the Rosecrance Florian Program.