They save your homes.
When a call comes in about a raging fire, they jump in the engine, sirens race to the scene and battle to keep a home from burning down.
But those are the rare calls. For the most part, firefighters are the last line of defense, fighting to keep people from crossing over from life to death.
Peoria firefighters do CPR on kids pulled out of pools, push down on gunshot wounds pumping out blood and cut teenagers out of grisly car wrecks.
A budding peer support program is helping responders realize they need to talk about the traumatic experiences that are part of the job.
“There’s always been a stigma associated with seeking help from these types of incidents,” said Peoria Fire-Medical Deputy Chief Rob Brewster, a firefighter for 31 years.
“The old saying was, ‘Suck it up, buttercup.’ You just don’t take it home to your family; you don’t want to burden them with what you see. ... So you don’t talk about it.”
September is Suicide Prevention Month, which reminds Peoria firefighters about a peer support program. The program is crucial, as the intense calls never stop, many involving children being severely injured—or worse.
“Kids are the worst. You internalize it. You push it down and bury it because you have to run the next call,” Brewster said. “That leads to a cumulative effect
“That will catch up with folks over time.”
Even one exposure to an intense event can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
For firefighter-paramedics, trauma is a daily routine.
For decades, the mentality in Peoria was the same at fire departments around the country: It’s part of the job; if you can’t take the tough calls, go get an office job.
In the last two years, Peoria firefighters are warming to a new mentality: You can’t be a hero if you’ve got your own problems.
Firefighters are being taught to fight for their own mental health.
A recent study found the number of firefighters who died by suicide was greater than the number of firefighters who died on the job.
The Peoria Fire-Medical Peer Support Team was established in 2018.
The same year, Brewster noted, 115 first responders committed suicide nationwide—“and 93 of those were firefighters. Last year, 143 first responders committed suicide, and 120 of them were firefighters.”
The goal of the peer support program is to keep Peoria’s 210 firefighters from experiencing mental health crises.
“We’re taking a proactive approach, through education, support and advocacy,” Brewster said. “We’re really focusing on changing the stigma, letting people know these resources are available, we’re not alone—we’re in this together. We’ve had some pretty good success.”
Members of the support team keep a close eye out for peers who may be experiencing depression or anxiety, showing symptoms ranging from withdrawal to angry outbursts.
Brewster said the peer support team responds swiftly after “high-stress incidents,” such as child or infant calls, drownings, gunshot wounds and suicide calls.
“These are the big ones that leave a mark on you,” Brewster said.
When one of those calls come in, even as responders race into action, “an alarm sends a text to all of our peer support team members.”
After the intense calls, peer support members do a welfare check on those involved, starting with, “How’re you doing? Do you need anything?”
In this way, the Peoria Fire-Medical Department isn’t waiting for people to ask for help—but reaching out to them early.
“It’s important to have people in the trenches with our other folks—people they work with every day, they trust,” Brewster said.
Not talking about the toughest calls can have a negative impact on the psyche in the long term.
“It’s a cumulative effect, the constant trauma and dramatic events,” Brewster said.
“Our program is used as a model statewide. We have a thorough, robust model, and we’ve got good member feedback.”