By Anne Eickstadt


Recently, Belvidere firefighters put their lives on the line to rescue residents of a flame-engulfed, smoke-filled, house. After racing into the blazing residence on a search-and-rescue mission, the firefighters brought two residents out of danger to be taken to the hospital by Lifeline Ambulance Crews while the firefighters continued to battle the flames. The fire was brought under control; unfortunately the three family dogs did not make it out.

Knowing that they had been unable to save beloved family pets was bad enough. When they learned that not just one but both of those people that they had risked their lives and gone into a compromised, dangerous structure to rescue had passed away despite all their efforts, it was a hard hit to their mental and emotional well-being, but …

You will never hear them complain.

Knowing this and wanting to support his men, Belvidere Fire Department’s Captain Shawn Shadle called upon Illinois Firefighter Peer Support to speak with all the first responders for that event. Firefighters, police officers, paramedics, and 911 dispatcherseveryone who was involved had the opportunity to come together, speak out, and share their thoughts, feelings, and self-doubts with a trained support group of peers.

Chief Al Hyser recalls: “When I started on the fire department in 1996, we really did not have anything in place to deal with the mental part of the job. We basically talked amongst ourselves about what we had just been through and left it at that. I recall one occasion, on a late spring day, we were called to a local elementary school playground for a young person who collapsed; he was unconscious and not breathing on our arrival. He was taken to a local hospital where he was pronounced dead.

“Within minutes of leaving the school we were dispatched to another location blocks away for a baby not breathing and, despite all our efforts, the baby died that day also. I remember going to St. Joseph’s Hospital and a chaplain came outside to talk to us knowing what we had just gone through. That was the first time that someone, besides a fellow firefighter, acknowledged what we must be feeling. That experience made me realize how important it is not only to talk about it but also the need to let it go.

“I suppose that was my first encounter with a person who was interested in what was going on inside our heads. In the fire service years ago, firefighters opted not to talk about what they were feeling for fear of being thought of as ‘soft.’

“Research over the years has proven that many ‘emotional hits’ over a person’s career takes a mental toll from which some of our members do not recover. The result is people resort to alcoholism and drugs or develop psychological disorders like depression. Thankfully, the public safety services have realized this and offer this type of peer support.”

“The great thing about Illinois Firefighter Peer Support is that the speaker is usually a retired firefighter who understands what we are dealing with. They have been there before, they know what to say to get you back on track.”

Hyser said, “If you are in the fire service long enough the chances of bad calls increase exponentially. Each individual deals with it differently. The ILFFPS is a part of the healing process that each of us goes through. I appreciate these people coming to us. God bless them.”

Illinois Firefighter Peer Support

“Illinois Firefighter Peer Support was founded so no fire service or emergency responder would have to go through pain or suffering alone. Every day we put our lives on the line to save others—frequently putting our needs last—but as a community we’ve recognized we’re stronger when we acknowledge our burdens and face them head on together. It takes a lot of courage to reach out for help—we’ve been there—and now we are here to answer that call.

“Illinois Firefighter Peer Support seeks to contribute and provide ongoing emotional wellness resources that are readily needed in the fire service and for emergency responders.

“None of us have to struggle alone. The Illinois Firefighter Peer Support (ILFFPS) Team is here when you need us. There are going to be times in our lives that are tough by virtue of what we experience as professionals and human beings. Strength is not shouldering another burden; rather, strength is in letting go and asking for help. ILFFPS is made up of fire service and EMS members just like you. If you need a peer to talk with and someone who can understand what you are experiencing because they have been there; we are here.”

“Illinois Firefighter Peer Support’s (ILFFPS) mission is to recognize that all fire service and emergency medical service members are human beings who will be exposed to, and experience, emotions. ILFFPS provides a safe, non-judgmental, and confidential environment where members can engage in a healing conversation with a peer. ILFFPS also seeks to share the concept of peer support and the structure of our program with those that inquire. Peer support is completely voluntary. It is provided only to individuals and groups of firefighters who request it.

“We’ve assembled a dynamic network of first responders ready to help. Our team of trained peer supporters is over 200 firefighters strong, meaning we’ll be able to pair you with someone whose story echoes yours. We also have combined forces with experienced clinical consultants and religious leaders who provide additional wisdom, resources, and comfort.

“We know that every story is unique which is why we offer several paths to mental and emotional well-being. No matter which route you choose, you’ll find compassion and under-standing from someone who’s been in your shoes.

“Firefighters and paramedics encounter traumatic events on a regular basis in the line of duty. Peer support seeks to help fire service personnel reduce stress and diminish the negative emotional effects of this occupation.

“The Illinois Peer Sup-port Team values the concept of Brotherhood in which firefighters have supported one an-other. This includes understanding that we have a duty to all fire-fighters equally, and that we are all deserving of genuine support by our peers in a time of need, no matter the need.”

Illinois Firefighter Peer Support information can be located online at or on their Facebook page.

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