IL Firefighter Peer Support Symposium

I had the distinct honor and privilege of being selected to speak at the inaugural Peer Support Symposium that wrapped up Friday evening in Oak Brook, IL. I also had the pleasure of having 6 of my L2986 union brothers in attendance and although they didn’t attend because I was speaking, several of them did attend my sessions. I am grateful for their support.

Because not all my readers are first responders, allow me to back track a few steps and explain what Peer Support is and what it entails.

For years in this country, we were losing around 100 firefighters per year in line of duty deaths. These deaths included catastrophic on-duty accidents/incidents as well as those that we would consider presumptive such as a heart attack within hours of finishing a shift. However, it has recently been recognized that we are losing firefighters more to SUICIDE than any other cause.

The civilian population likely doesn’t realize that firefighters are at risk for suicide. How could they possibly be at risk? Firefighters are the heroes that save the day when no one knows who else to call! Think about it though, firefighters have all the stressors that a civilian has (money, marital issues, sick kids, aging parents) coupled with the fact that they are chronically sleep deprived AND see things that the human body isn’t designed to cope with. To that, add that at no time are they prepared or educated for what their career will hold. To quote Matt Olson, the originator of the Illinois peer support team, “see a problem, fix a problem, move on to the next problem.” The overarching issue is that we never cope with any of those problems and they are additive.

The peer support network was created to ‘save our own’, so to speak. When firefighters are overwhelmed and feel they have nowhere to turn, they can turn to their own peers for assistance. Peer supporters simply listen and validate. We also have a network of resources for referral and a trained clinical psychologist on the team. We help our peers simply by having a safe conversation.

I was lucky enough to be allowed to take the training for peer support last July. As a new team member, I hesitated briefly when the call for submissions to present at the conference came out. I knew in my gut that I had something special to offer, but I feared that the correlation wouldn’t be connected, and I’d be left out of the process.

I also agonized over which aspect of health and wellness I should focus on because it’s ALL IMPORTANT. For firefighter physical and mental health, it all matters! Sleep matters, nutrition matters, physical activity matters, recovery matters, mindset matters, breathing matters. I finally took the leap and focused on nutrition and submitted my proposal.

“For firefighter mental and physical health, it all matters”

I was thrilled to be notified that my topic had been accepted and I spent the next FOUR MONTHS preparing my research.

Leading up to the conference, I had the wonderful experience of meeting fellow presenter: Jon Sanders, a Sioux Falls, SD Fire Rescue employee and the pastor of his own church. Jon interviewed me and all the other presenters, on his podcast, The Fire Inside. I strongly encourage you to check out Jon and the podcast at He is a wonderful wealth of resources.

I was pleased to see that many aspects of mental health were covered at the conference, and my biggest regret was that there were only 4 time slots and since I was presenting twice, I could only choose two others session to attend.

I chose well! Elgin, IL firefighter Chris Marella of 4thShift Fitness spoke on training, injury and the road back from injury. Even though Chris and I are in a very similar niche, he had a unique and refreshing perspective that I appreciated very much. I also attended Jacqueline Toomey’s course where she related her experiences with sleep and mental wellness. Jacqueline is married to a Denver, CO firefighter. Their resources can be found at

Wendy Lund presented a keynote speech and I was mesmerized from start to finish. Not only is Wendy an excellent speaker, she is a solid academic and her research is fascinating. Wendy’s take on ‘drown-proofing’ our first responders was an amazing analogy. Wendy stated emphatically that “the value and health of the employee matters.” What is it exactly that makes some employees more resilient and some less resilient? Wendy strives to find out what makes some employees at risk and others less so. Check out Wendy at

In summary, the conference provided an excellent opportunity for firefighters from Illinois and other states to get together, learn and start conversations. I hope that every person that attended the conference found it valuable and insightful—I know I did.

I want to thank Tom Howard and the entire team for putting together a great opportunity. There were many other presenters that, unfortunately, I didn’t get to hear. I hope to follow up with them individually and learn about their messages. Behind the scenes, many sponsors helped out financially and for that I am grateful. I especially appreciate Ben and Jamie from Legacy Apparatus for putting together a presenter dinner where we could meet and collaborate with the other mental health experts.

Parting thought: if you, or someone you know is struggling, there are resources available. If you don’t have a peer support program in your state, reach out to the ILFFPS network. It all starts with a conversation.

Be well,