Disconnected: Lost peer support in the firehouse
Times have changed in the fire service and some of the best peer support opportunities have fallen by the wayside as firefighter culture has evolved
Lately, there is a lot of emphasis being placed on peer support training for first responders. It’s a growing trend and I certainly see the need. I just completed the peer support training from the National Emergency Responder and Public Safety Center, which is now a part of Lexipol’s Cordico wellness solution. Now, more than ever, peer support is needed as first responders are experiencing more stress and responding to tragic incidents.
Formal peer support programs are important, but so is the much more informal type of peer support, also known as fellowship. In my opinion, some of the best peer support we ever had in the fire service has begun to disappear. It was right in our stations, and we held the keys. The problem is, we didn’t see it for what it was, so we’ve let it slip through our fingers.
The fire service has changed since the beginning of my career. Here are a few examples of how I notice the decrease of informal peer support in many firehouses.
PEER SUPPORT IN THE FIREHOUSE KITCHEN
In the traditional fire station, the kitchen served as a major hub of camaraderie. No matter who happened to be cooking that day, jumping in to help prepare meals brought us all together. Sharing ideas, laughing and trying new recipes helped us bond as firefighters, coworkers, brothers and sisters.
Of course, one of the most sacred places at the fire house is the kitchen table. There’s something so elemental about breaking bread together at the kitchen table — sharing experiences, laughing at each other’s jokes and coming together as firefighters.
Unfortunately, this form of peer support is in danger of being lost. Some personnel bring in their own food. Maybe they are vegan or have other special dietary needs, or they might prefer to walk across the street and grab an easy bite at a fast-food chain. Sometimes a firefighter spouse will bring food in, and that person will eat on their own while staring at their phone. For a number of different reasons, bonding at the kitchen table has diminished.
PEER SUPPORT IN THE FIREHOUSE DORM
In the past, the firehouse dorm was seen as something close to a sanctuary. In reality, it was often more like a space for group therapy. I can remember many times in my career as a firefighter, getting on the station all call system and saying, “Therapy time!” Sometimes just a few of us would make our way upstairs to the dorm; other times, practically everyone would head up for a gab session.
The typical firehouse dorm used to be a big room with no walls — 15 beds where we would lay around and just talk firehouse talk. Some discussions were serious, but most were full of laughs and gossiping. It was always great bonding time, nonetheless.
Nowadays, though, most firehouse dormitories have been redesigned as “snore dorms.” Instead of open areas (perfect for group discussions), these four-walled cubicles seem like they were mostly designed to prevent one person’s loud snoring from waking up everybody else. In reality, they are closed in so personnel can have privacy — something nobody in a traditional fire crew expected or even wanted. Also, they’re a necessary change as firehouses evolve from all-male spaces to more inclusive facilities where everyone can feel welcome.
They also have small televisions and computer workstations with chargers for iPhone and iPads. Many have locks installed. These “snore dorms” have isolated firefighters from one another, reducing or eliminating the “therapy” sessions we once shared.
PEER SUPPORT IN THE FIREHOUSE REC ROOM
With televisions and workstations now in the snore dorms, many firefighters no longer use the firehouse recreation room. This is where we would gather after lunch in our station recliners watching “All My Children,” where we would congregate in the evenings and on weekends watching sports, movies, or simply playing chess or backgammon.
From what I can tell, many young firefighters would prefer to watch sports and movies on their phones or tablets — often in the privacy of their individual sleeping rooms. Board games have given way to video games, usually played all alone on a small screen instead of hooting and hollering with others in the rec room. Another avenue for peer support … gone!
OTHER LOST OPPORTUNITIES FOR PEER SUPPORT
“If you build it, they will come!” I remember at one station, the crew pooled their own money for supplies to build a “park-like” area in the yard behind the station. We called it our “Hard Luck Park,” and you’d often find crew members back there smoking cigars on the park benches and having after-hours therapy sessions.
Unfortunately, this kind of thing just isn’t possible today. Because of liability issues, all new construction has to be approved and built by the city’s public works department. That means the teamwork, bonding and support is affected, too.
Where do you live? There was once a time when we would get off duty in the morning and go to breakfast somewhere. We’d spend the time talking about the calls (good and bad) during the shift that just ended. Back then, firefighters would spend a lot of off-duty time together: Attending classes for upcoming promotional exams, catching a baseball game, hitting the car races, or showing up in force to celebrate the birthday of a fellow firefighter’s child or family member.
This is less common now, as many firefighters don’t live in the communities they serve. The high cost of housing means many of us live 30-50 miles away from the firehouse. It has become a work-only environment, which results in less time socializing with each other when we’re off duty.
Engine 101 out of service! In the old-fashioned firehouse, when an engine broke down for whatever reason, we had so much talent in the station to help make the repairs. It used to be common for all personnel to get together, take off the pump panel and work together on our rigs. We’d tinker as a team, learning from each other as we laughed and yes, even played together. All of this made for solid therapeutic work.
Let’s face it: There’s not a better group than firefighters to design, build, repair and remodel things at the station. Working together to improve and enhance the firehouse helps personnel bond while instilling a great sense of pride in the department. Unfortunately, most repairs, remodels and building projects are now being outsourced to private entities or government departments. This means less time working together, solving problems, and bonding as we did it.
If you’ve been in the fire service for more than a decade, you understand what I am talking about. Times have changed and some of the best peer support opportunities have fallen by the wayside as firefighter culture has evolved. So I ask you, how do we correct this decline of peer support in the firehouse?
Here are a few suggestions:
Bring company dinner back: As often as you can, get everyone to sit down together for a meal. This may require extra planning to accommodate special diets, food allergies and so on. But it’ll be worth it.
Make better use of common areas: If your firehouse has abandoned dormitory sleeping in favor of individual rooms, make sure there’s somewhere in the station where everyone can gather and be social. Consider a “no phones” policy for these gatherings and do what you can to make them enjoyable for all.
Pass on perishable skills: One of the best opportunities to bond with other members of your fire crew is while teaching and learning. This doesn’t have to be firefighting-related, but it could be. Consider informal classes on equipment maintenance and repair, or even cooking classes to make mealtimes even more enjoyable. The possibilities are endless.
Boost your peer support team: With all the changes in the fire service, formal peer support has become more and more important. If your department doesn’t currently have a peer support team, it’s critical to get one up and running. If it’s been a while since your team has received training, doing so can reinvigorate the members and make them more effective.