Some things I've learned along the way...
It’s widely accepted that First Responders are some of the most highly and specially trained people and teams in the world. This is not due to luck or coincidence.
The investment in and use of Peer Trainers should be no different than any other skill set within your department such as technical rescue or vehicle extraction. Before the investment is made in training there should be some considerations and planning to help ensure success. It must be understood what the skill set will be, what the mission and scope of the trainers are, who is the best fit to become a trainer and how the people and work will be organized. Of course, there is an innumerable amount of questions and considerations that may arise in your specific scenario. This blog is merely intended to be a starting point for strategic level discussions.
In our fire department we have over 50 stations. Our wellness program also serves city/county EMS and the police department. Even though we have a robust wellness program with four civilian fitness specialists there is still no way for us to provide everything our members need. Having peer trainers is critical. Even if you are a small organization, the properly selected and prepared trainer can be a force multiplier with their ability to affect the physical readiness and effectiveness of your personnel.
Buy-in: If you are a civilian fitness professional, peer trainers can provide even more. I didn’t understand the significance of it initially, but once I had some of our members saying “he’s cool” things worked a little better.
Cross-Training: This can come in many forms. The ability to have a member of the department who can speak the language of fitness and translate between the language of your department, executive team, city officials, etc. is a huge asset. For the civilian fitness professionals out there the ability to improve your messaging by having it in the right language cannot be overstated. Additionally, there is a tremendous opportunity to provide uniformed job task and familiarization training to civilians. If you are a civilian fitness professional and you are doing things “right”, you may even get the opportunity to use your expertise to expand on the knowledge, skills, and abilities of your peer trainers
Mission / Scope
Why peer trainers? If you are investing in peer trainers in order to have a wellness program, you may be moving in the wrong direction. Like any other skill set in your organization, without a well thought out and communicated mission for this new skill set it is much more likely to die on the vine. Understanding the scope of your trainers is critical in the creation of a proper mission.
Scope: Your peer trainers have been taught the basics of things like proper movement patterns, exercise physiology, nutrition, fitness testing and basic performance programming. Understanding this scope should help decision makers understand that even though things may seem related, it may still not be appropriate. As an example, planning and leading workouts, or working with an individual to improve their fitness or body composition would be a great fit, whereas managing the return-to-work process or rehabilitative exercise prescription may not be.
Mission: Another key aspect for success is to ensure the mission is quantifiable, i.e. reduction in injury cost or increase in aerobic capacity. As is the case in most business endeavors, if you are unable to show a return on the investment in your trainers, it’s going to be that much harder to keep the program going and recertify them when the time comes.
Choosing the right people
One of the keys to success for fitness professionals is the concept of meeting your clients, athletes, etc. where they are, not where they should be, or where you want them to be. It probably seems like a great idea to have the 30-year-old department fitness champ be the trainer because if they know how to train themselves, they are going to know how to train others. While that may be true, what does your department look like? Is the fitness champ going to be the best trainer for your member who is 50 years old, has four children, is carrying an extra 30 pounds and has 20 years of injuries that affect his or her ability to move properly?
Organization / Structure
Again, as with any of the skill sets in your department, the way you organize and structure the peer trainers will greatly depend on things like the size of your department, the mission of the trainers and any framework that may already exist. Be aware, it is very common to forget about the administrative tasks that may be required.
Coordination: Whether you have one trainer or 50, there are things that need to be done in addition to working with the people. If these are not properly accounted for, the trainer(s) can quickly find themselves spending more time doing this than what they were trained to do. Some of these tasks include scheduling / rescheduling, equipment management, certification / recertification requirements and even just having a single point of contact to name a few.
Payment: Obviously this is a topic that must be addressed. Whether you use them as volunteers, pay them overtime or make it their regular duty, remember, you are likely to get what you pay for in each scenario. You know how it works.
If you’ve read this much you are already started on your path to creating or improving your peer trainer program. As you all know, there is no one size fits all for our first responder community. The good news is that this community is filled with mission-oriented people who want to take care of each other. Just that simple fact should be enough motivation for you to take the next step.
These are just some of the things I’ve learned along the way, and I hope it serves you well. If you would like to discuss further or have specific questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me by the methods below.
Jeff is a retired Marine who has over two decades of experience working with and training all manner of athletes and tactical personnel. He earned a BS from the University of Texas at Austin and maintains several other fitness and business certifications. He currently works as a Fitness Specialist for the Austin Public Safety Wellness Center.