The Swiss intervention team for firefighter traumatic events
Article by the International Relations Officer of the Hellenic Volunteer Firefighters Association, Volunteer Fire Sergeant Maria Bitra
Firefighters face challenging situations all over the world and are asked to deal with incidents that require a presence of intelligence, courage and experience. However, many times, there is emotional exhaustion and demanding incidents take their toll on the mental health of the fire staff.
In Switzerland, in the cantons of Luzern, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Uri, Schwyz and Zug, the group FW-Peers is there to support, as the name states, their peers. FW-Peers (Feuerwehr/Firefighter Peers) is a team of firefighters who are specially trained to provide psychological support to colleagues after incidents with seriously injured or dead victims, especially when it involves children or other firefighters.
After life-threatening or shocking incidents, firefighters need to defuse, as it is stressed by Thomas Lang, Commander of Kompanie I (Fire Company I) of the City of Lucerne and Chief of FW-Peers group. The same way firefighters, after returning from the incident, have to take care of their gear and make sure it is clean and ready for the next incident, the same should their soul be taken care of after a stressful incident, points out Commander Lang, a graduate of Theology and a volunteer, leading a staff of eighty-three firefighters.
After such incidents, the fire station commander or a fire staff member or the canton Fire Services Manager can ask from the group to pay an immediate visit for the defusing and debriefing of the firefighters involved. This intervention protocol, dealing with traumatic events, is called Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM). Attendance is not obligatory by the fire house staff. However, the fire staff know that it is a confidential and educative process and the team is there to listen to the firefighters and provide their support in the meeting, with additional meetings scheduled if necessary. After eight weeks, the group has the last intervention where it is decided if something more is needed, in which case there might be an extra intervention by a psychologist.
The need for the creation of a support group came almost 24 years ago, in 1999, when the Fire Companies in Lucerne were faced with two shocking incidents, involving the death of a child and two serious injuries. These experiences took a toll on the mental health of the firefighters and the demand for a support group grew, leading to the founding of FW-Peers.
Throughout the twenty-four years, the programme has received excellent feedback by firefighters, who have expressed their satisfaction of how much they felt supported and helped by the meetings with the group.
One of the basic requirements in order to join this team is to be a firefighter. This way, firefighters who ask for the group’s support feel that they are being understood by people of the same line of work. The group meets for training purposes three times a year in order to refresh and enrich their knowledge, practising techniques through role play.
In Lucerne, there are 285 firefighters, 250 volunteer and 35 career. FW-Peers Team has got 15 members, all firefighters, of whom 12 are volunteer firefighters and 3 are career firefighters.
Special thanks to Commander Thomas Lang, City of Lucerne Kompanie I/ Chief of FW-Peers group, for the provided material (information, pictures).