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3 steps to creating a successful peer support team in the fire service

Empower and optimize your department’s team by selecting quality members, providing thorough training and future planning to avoid burnout

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“Peer support teams can provide a critical link for assisting department members through times of stress or loss,” writes Willing.

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The concept of peer support has been around for a long time, but formal peer support teams in the fire service are relatively new. These teams are intended to fill a space between informal interactions among coworkers and formal interventions like employee assistance programs (EAPs) or mental health counseling. When they are well trained and supported by department leaders, such teams can provide a critical link for assisting department members through times of stress or loss.

Unfortunately, these teams are not always optimally functional and may not be valued or used in the best possible ways. A recent FireRescue1 survey found that most respondents knew how to access these support teams. However, that same survey showed that only 38% felt their department’s teams were well trained.

How to create a successful peer support team

Peer support teams depend on three factors for their success: the selection of team members, the training of those members, and ongoing support and longevity for members of the team.

1. Team member selection. Selection of team members can happen in several ways. The two most common ways are for individuals to either volunteer or be recruited to join. Of course, any member of a special team should be a willing participant, but there can be issues with only accepting volunteers for these types of teams. In many organizations, the same people may tend to volunteer for things, and from a peer support standpoint, those people may not always be able to represent or reach all members of the department.

Even when teams entirely depend on volunteers, it never hurts to do a little recruitment. All department members should be aware, not only that peer support teams exist, but how they function and exactly what team members do. Current team members can talk about their experiences, the challenges they have faced and the potential rewards from involvement. When doing this outreach, it is especially important to include people that might be underrepresented within the department.

Some departments have taken a creative approach to building peer support teams. One mid-sized department asked every member to confidentially respond to this question:

If you had a tough personal problem or issue, who is the one person on the department you would most want to talk to?”

The results were tallied, and the top 12 members were contacted by department leadership and told they had been nominated as members of the peer support team. The department required those people to attend training, which was compensated with overtime, but did not require them to join the team. However, after completing the required training, only one person ultimately decided not to join.

2. Training peer support team members. Training is critical for successful peer support teams. The necessary skills – empathetic listening, open-ended questioning, issues related to confidentiality – are not often included in regular firefighter training. Training must also recognize the special concerns that firefighters have, therefore it’s important that peer support training be grounded in firefighter culture and experience. Trainers with a general counseling background can be great but must be paired with firefighters who have actual experience as peer support team members.

And training is never a one-shot deal. There is a basic level of knowledge and expertise that must be attained before someone becomes a peer support team member, but ongoing training opportunities are important for keeping team members current and engaged with their role. Team members will have questions as unique issues crop up during their peer support tenure, and departments must have ways of addressing these concerns.

3. Ensuring longevity. Longevity is an issue that should be top-of-mind for every successful peer support team. You want people to come onto the team and stay long enough to gain a sense of competence and reward from membership. But you don’t want people to stay too long. It can be tempting to assign identities to people based on their departmental commitments and allow a small group of individuals to be the only ones expected to fill those roles. But being a peer support team member can be hard and burnout is a real danger. Current members should be encouraged to mentor potential new members and then feel good about stepping aside while they are still positively engaged, versus quitting because of feeling overwhelmed or burned out.

Nurture peer support teams to ensure success

Peer support teams can do so much good, but they are not something that can be created and then left alone. All department members need to understand the role these teams can play, and members must be trained and supported through the difficult and important work they do.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.
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