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Responder Peer Support

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Programs where responders support each other can be helpful as a way to acknowledge the difficulties in response work, strengthen teams, and equip responders to cope more effectively.

Issues Faced by Responders

Firefighters, law enforcement officers, emergency medical services (EMS) personnel, and other first responders and disaster responders repeatedly see the aftermath of disasters and other crises. High-stress scenarios, threat of personal injury, and inability of any single person to save everyone can take a toll. Stress and posttraumatic stress and substance use disorders may affect first responders (PDF | 263 KB) at higher rates, and studies suggest that firefighters and EMS personnel may be more likely to think about or die by suicide than the general public.

Responder culture can play a role in whether those in need reach out for help or even recognize that the symptoms they are dealing with are a disorder requiring care and treatment. Responders also deal with the same stigma that makes it hard for people in many communities to seek help. They may think asking for help will make them seem not able to do their job, when asking for help is actually a sign of resilience.

Peer Support

In peer support programs for responders, responders provide support for each other. Support may include reflective listening and other types of emotional support, as well as helping with response after a critical incident. Peer support can help responders cope, lower stigma, and build team cohesion. Responders understand stressors their peers face as others may not. Peers can model healthy behaviors and share information about sources of support.

Following are some resources for peer support for responders:

  • The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers a public safety professionals web page with information about challenges responders face and organizations providing peer support programs for responders. NAMI also provides a web page with stories and videos from frontline professionals.
  • Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) is a technique to help people assist those around them who are experiencing mental health or substance use-related crises. MHFA training may cost money to complete. Varieties are available specifically for public safety workers and fire and EMS personnel
  • The Center for Firefighter Behavioral Health offers resources including Firefighters Helping Firefighters, a collection of online videos about managing stress in the fire service. While not a peer support program, Firefighters Helping Firefighters offers some of the benefits of peer support, including acknowledgement of stressors in the fire service, reduction of stigma, and ideas for coping by firefighters for firefighters.
  • The International Association of Chiefs of Police has developed peer support guidelines.

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