When people need help, they expect to encounter a first responder that is level-headed and able to face terrible situations with bravery. They are the ones to face the fire, or the ones to calmly care for us when we’re hurt and panicked. The men and women who choose this career are trained to approach their job with logic and have an understanding that only those who can manage the stress of volatile situations are cut out for a success.
There is a rising awareness that many in the fire service have felt they need to just “tough it out,” and ignore the symptoms of stress that are inherent to the job. A large number of firefighters have experienced trauma related to difficult calls, struggle with stress from sleep interruptions, or experience burnout.
An increased effort is being made towards the betterment of overall firefighter health; identifying and removing as many environmental hazards as possible, encouraging healthy lifestyles, and raising awareness and destigmatizing mental health.
To encourage communication and better address the mental health of our members, the Port of Seattle Fire Department has developed a growing program known as the Peer Support Team.
Firefighter, and Peer Support Team member, Spencer Thomas took the time to answer some questions for us.
In a nutshell, what is the Firefighter Peer Support Group?
The Peer Support Team is a collection of firefighters and officers in the fire department who are trained to help their peers through challenging circumstances, whether it be the aftermath of tough calls, mental health issues, marriage issues, or just to be a listening ear. We are strictly confidential, and we can help connect our peers with clinicians or other resources who can provide professional level care.
What is considered a critical incident and what sort of reactions should personnel be coconscious of, whether in themselves or their crewmates?
A critical incident is any sort of event that has a likelihood of causing emotional or mental stress to the responder. It can be something small or big. Everyone responds to critical incidents differently, and what is a critical incident to one person might not be to another person. We all have different triggers, and we all react differently. So, it’s important to be conscious of changes in mood or behavior of crewmates following an incident. And honestly, the best way to know if someone is having a reaction to a critical incident is to simply ask them! If you ask kindly and respectfully, people will generally tell you if they are struggling with an event.
What are some of the key mental health challenges facing first responders?
Mental health is a huge challenge in the fire service due to the stress of the job, long hours, and sleep disturbances, among many other reasons. The constant repeated exposure to traumatic events can become a burden to a lot of even the strongest first responders. In my personal opinion, one of the greatest challenges for first responders is acknowledging that one might need help. First responders often think they can get through anything with enough willpower, but at some point, almost everyone could use a little help.
How are we doing better and dealing with issues today?
There has been a lot of progress around destigmatizing mental health, but we can still do better! Our Peer Support Team has only been around for four years, so it is still new, and firefighters are still getting used to the idea that there are trained individuals within the department who they can confidentially speak to. We can continue to spread awareness about Peer Support and the realities of mental health.
Taking care of our mental health is as vital as taking care of our physical health.
Take steps to be healthy and to be happy.