What is Peer Support?
In March 2008, as a rookie assigned to Company 39, I was advancing a hose line from the first due engine at a working house fire. While advancing my line ahead of the crew, I suddenly fell into a burned-out hole where a kitchen island once stood. Disoriented, alone, gear disheveled, and without the hose line I had held seconds before the fall, I debated with myself as to the severity of my situation. I wanted to be the rookie that stayed off the radar. However, the hard decision I made, was to get on the radio and call a Mayday. As I grappled with the fear of the unknown, I called out a Mayday. As companies arrived on the scene, within minutes, Truck 19 (Lt. Ed Parkinson, if I didn’t name drop him, he will blow up my phone) found me and escorted me to side alpha.
Realizing I was safe and only had minor bumps, bruises, and a burn, I didn’t think much of the incident other than the excitement of going to a fire and doing my job. For my family that was out of state, their feelings were very different than mine. Minutes after I declared my mayday on the repeated channel 3, they received a phone call that their oldest son had fallen through a hole into a basement fire and was taken to the Burn Center. Fast forward a day or two, my father and fiancé stayed with me.
This incident affected them way more than it affected me. What made them understand the Prince George’s County Fire Department and Local 1619 was when I started receiving phone calls from senior firefighters and officers that I had never met. They told me about their Maydays and close calls. The most crucial piece for me was how their families reacted after their incidents. Those phone calls made my family comfortable with the fact that there was an unofficial support network available.
Memorial Day weekend 2016, I found myself again in need of peer support. While hiking, I suffered a heat stroke and wound up in a coma for three days. When word got to Company 21 of my status, my co-workers created a work sign-up schedule without hesitation. In the three months that I was off recovering, every firefighter and officer in the firehouse picked up my shifts. I never used an hour of leave during my recovery.
Peer support has been around in the fire service long before you or I have been doing this job. The typical support usually looks like holding over for a person, working that last-minute swap, helping fix that one shift partners car who doesn’t know how to turn a wrench…you get the point. Very rarely did mental health ever get discussed. Even to this day, when mental health is mentioned, people involved tend to become uncomfortable. Evidence has shown that mental health is a crucial component of performance. Stress can affect job performance and relationship as a spouse, parent, friend, or any other aspect of our lives outside of work.
Following the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) lead, Local 1619 created a peer support network for our members to use in addition to the Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) that is offered through Prince George’s County. Not only is this an extra layer of confidentiality for you and your family, but you also have access to peers that understand the nuances of our profession and the effects that can sometimes come with doing this job. Whether it’s merely needing a vent session or trying to find a behavioral health service for yourself or a loved one, our Peer Support Team is always there.
Confidentiality is the key component of this program, and without confidentiality, we do not have a program. So, if you are not sure if you, a co-worker, or family member need help, call to our hotline or reach out to a team member (Team members can be found on the team member tab of the website). While sometimes it feels like we are on our own, I can tell you from my experiences that peer support is available, whether it’s from an established team or your co-workers. The hardest thing is either asking for help or accepting the help offered.
To learn more about the peer support team or anonymously schedule a station visit, reach out to a peer team member or call the 24/7 confidential hotline: 240-343-1619.