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6 steps to peer support success

When implemented effectively, a peer support program can be one of the best resources for first responders to access help


In the eyes of a first responder who is struggling, another first responder may be the only person who truly “gets it.”

AP Photo/John Minchillo

By Sarah Guenette

Public safety events often have stressful and long-term effects on those involved. First responder agencies must have a strong internal support system in place for employees. One of the resources to consider is a peer support team.

The theory behind peer support is simple – the power of shared experience. There are multiple models for peer support including internal and external and they range from informal to formal clinical care models. This article will focus on workplace peer support, which is a formal and intentional form of support.

The nature of the shared experience varies with the environment. In first responder agencies, the shared experience is being in the same work environment and having exposure to the stressors related to the first responder role. Peers are there to offer support, empathy, guidance, information and access to resources. In the eyes of a first responder who is struggling, another first responder may be the only person who truly “gets it.” Here are six steps to peer support success:

1. Selection, qualifications of peers

It is well known there is a stigma against getting help within first responder communities. For some responders, it is difficult to take that first step to ask for help and admit they are struggling. While the culture is slowly changing, stigma is still a factor. When a first responder finally takes the step to talk to someone, they want someone they respect, trust and who is going to be empathetic.

When selecting peers an agency needs to consider what attributes other first responders would be looking for in that person. Just because someone wants to be a peer doesn’t mean they will be suited for the role. They need to know and live the values of hope, recovery, empathy and self-determination. They also need to be skilled in interpersonal communication and critical thinking and be supportive of change.

To ensure the selection of appropriate peers, agencies could consider an application and selection process. This emphasizes the importance of the role through formalizing it. It could entail informal or formal interviews or reference checks with coworkers.

Each agency needs to decide what training they are prepared to deliver for peers; peer support training is critical. But ultimately successful peers should already have three core traits in common:

  • The ability to empathize.
  • The willingness to listen.
  • The resilience to carry others’ problems along with their own.

One of the most valuable ways for new peers to learn is to work alongside more experienced ones. Those existing peers must demonstrate the values the workforce respects.

The performance of peers should be managed just like any other work tasks. Peers who break confidentiality without good cause should be asked to leave the team and any complaints against a peer should be investigated through the agency’s usual procedure.

2. Confidentiality

Management, leaders of the peer support team, field personnel and the peers themselves must be all aware of the confidentiality rules each agency puts in place. This should be documented in policy, procedure, or code of conduct that is acknowledged by all peers and communicated to all staff.

Situations that could lead to self-harm or harm to others should permit the breaking of confidentiality. Aside from those scenarios, the leadership of the peer team and management need to define the parameters of escalation so everyone is on the same page, including employees who may access the team.

Employees will open up to the peer about things they do not want to be shared. Outside of the predetermined parameters where disclosure is mandatory, the peer must keep this information to themselves unless the employee indicates they want them to share it. If a peer team is seen by employees to break confidentiality, employees will not use them as a resource and the team will no longer be effective.

Confidentiality is part of any successful psychological health system.

3. Necessary disclosure

There will be times when peers will need to breach confidentiality for safety reasons. Plans should be in place for how these incidents are handled to avoid uncertainty in the moment and unintended consequences. These are cases where time is of the essence and the member needs additional support urgently. There needs to be a safety component to these situations whether it is the safety of the member, a loved one, or the public.

All steps must be taken to protect the member’s privacy and integrity. If an incident where a member is in crisis is handled poorly it can undermine the good intentions and image of the peer team. Ensure all peers understand the steps to take when they are faced with a safety-sensitive situation.

4. Tracking

Leaders of a peer team need to demonstrate the team is successful, that they are being accessed and that they are considered a valuable resource by employees. To obtain this data, a tracking system is needed. Peers can report interactions in a way that doesn’t breach confidentiality. A system of coded reporting where neither the peer nor the employee is identifiable is ideal.

Tracking is also useful for identifying organizational trending. If peers broadly categorize conversations in the tracking system, it can demonstrate whether there is a particular area of concern within the workforce. This allows management to address that trend through training in that area or by offering additional support resources to assist.

5. Health of peers

Peer support team members need to be able to take on the problem of others in addition to their own.

When there are stressors within a workplace, the draw on them as a resource will increase, not decrease, even though they are dealing with the same stressors. They need to be able to balance supporting others and ensuring that they can stay healthy and use healthy coping mechanisms.

Peers must receive psychological health training so they can understand triggers, warning signs, and healthy versus unhealthy coping strategies. If a peer starts to feel overwhelmed, they must reach out to another member of the team to talk about it, and if necessary, request to take a break from supporting until they feel more stable to continue.

For peers to protect their health, they need to be empowered to establish boundaries with coworkers. Peers are not mental health professionals. They provide timely support to a coworker and help them to identify the resources that they need. Peers should not be expected to support employees through long-term psychological struggles. Follow-up check-ins with employees are key and should be done after an initial conversation has taken place, but the peer cannot be the sole support for a member.

6. Leadership support

Ideally, a peer support team will be an initiative that is strongly supported from the top down. Leaders, especially operational ones, can play a pivotal role in whether an initiative is endorsed by the front line. Having a well-respected leader as a champion of the program will help it succeed. Since a peer support team is a resource to support worker health and wellness, the union will also ideally be supportive, although they may have questions and concerns, especially around confidentiality. If both senior leadership and the union support the initiative that should be communicated to employees along with clear communication about how the team will function.


Every agency will benefit from having a peer support program. When implemented effectively it can be one of the best resources for first responders to access help, and more importantly, for taking the step to ask for it in the first place.

A peer support team needs to be structured to meet the needs of members for it to be effective. With thorough planning and strategic implementation, a peer support team can become a core component of any agency’s psychological health and wellness program.

About the author

Sarah Guenette, MA, is the Learning & Development Manager for Calgary Community Standards. She oversees recruit training and continuing education for 9-1-1 call evaluators, bylaw and animal officers, business licensing inspectors, livery inspectors and animal shelter services employees. Sarah has a background in 9-1-1 and was a call evaluator, dispatcher and operations manager for over 10 years. She has overseen the Psychological Health and Safety portfolio and the Peer Support team for Calgary Community Standards since 2013. She is passionate about creating and maintaining a healthy workplace for employees. Sarah is also the proud wife of a Calgary Police Service officer.

The International Public Safety Association, a 501(c)3 non-profit public safety association, represents all public safety verticals: law enforcement, fire service, EMS, telecommunications, public works (water, sanitation, transportation), public health, hospitals, security, private sector, and emergency management.