Coping With Trauma and Loss: The Role of Peer Support

Author: IAFF Center of Excellence Staff

November 15, 2019

Unfortunately, encountering loss is part of the job for a fire fighter. Whether it’s the loss of a child, a stranger or a crew member, fire fighters can experience multiple tragedies in a relatively short period. Repeated exposure to aversive details of traumatic events can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Because fire fighters often have duties to carry out immediately following a death, you may grieve differently than others. It’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of PTSD while having access to support and an outlet to cope after a potentially traumatic event (PTE).

Shared Experiences and Shared Support

One of the most effective ways to process the aftermath of a traumatic call is to have a strong support system on the job. Your brothers and sisters understand PTEs and how these events can affect you mentally and emotionally. As fire fighters, you work as a team every day, and you can also work as a team to keep an eye on each other’s mental health.

Some locals and their departments have established peer support teams for this purpose. Peer support is one more tool in the toolbox to help grieving or distressed members get the support they need.

So, what are the key components of peer support?

  • One fire service member helping another
  • One-to-one supportive and flexible approach
  • Education on critical behavioral health problems that impact the fire service
  • Active listening, assessment, and crisis intervention skills
  • Providing a trusted bridge to behavioral health services

Training provides a critical foundation for any peer support team. When fire fighters are offered mental health training, they are more aware of and can help recognize the signs and symptoms of behavioral health disorders.

Fire fighter standing outside with his arms crossed smiling

The IAFF Peer Support Training program educates fire fighters on behavioral health issues that impact the fire service, while providing training in critical intervention skills, such as active listening, maintaining confidentiality and assessing a member in crisis.

Treatment for Grief

Sometimes peer support is not enough. When the normal grief process is stalled, sometimes complicated grief can develop. Complicated grief usually warrants a professional evaluation and treatment. Symptoms include:

  • Persistent anger or despair, versus waves of emotion that come and go
  • Inability to feel comfort or solace from social supports
  • Feeling emotionally bad on most days, versus having some good and some bad days
  • Consistently impaired daily functioning
  • Recurring thoughts of death tied to feeling worthless, undeserving or unable to cope

If you or a fellow fire fighter is living with complicated grief, PTSD or another behavioral health problem, help is available. Call the IAFF Center of Excellence to find out how specialized treatment can help you or a loved one get the help you need. You don’t have to struggle alone. Your call is free and confidential, and there is no obligation to enroll.

We can help. Call 240-545-5141 or

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