"The problem hasn't changed, but you're no longer left to deal with it on your own": The role of informal peer support in helping firefighters cope with critical incidents

Karin Dangermond, Ricardo Weewer, Joachim Duyndam, J.E.M. Machielse

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademic


Purpose – How firefighters cope with critical incidents is partly influenced by the culture of the fire brigade. The purpose of this study is to better understand how informal peer support helps firefighters cope with critical incidents.
Design/methodology/approach – An ethnographic field study of explorative nature was conducted. Data were collected by means of 20 participating observations and 72 interviews with Dutch firefighters from 37 different fire brigades. The analysis was an iterative process alternating data collection, analysis and theory formation processes.
Findings – Firefighters will turn to informal peer support to cope with critical incidents provided that facilitating circumstances are present and there is adherence to certain implicit rules. The collective sharing of memories, whether immediately post-incident or after the passage of time, helps firefighters process critical incidents and serves to promote unit cohesion. Most firefighters reported these informal debriefings to be preferable to the formal sessions. By comparison, a minority of firefighters reported that they did not benefit at
all from the informal interactions.
Research limitations/implications – This study only focused on the informal peer support given by colleagues. Future research should focus on: (1) The possible differences between men and women as to what extent informal peer support is experienced after critical incidents, (2) Commanding officers: how do they, given
their hierarchical position, experience coming to terms with critical incidents, (3) Premeditated critical incidents and the role of informal peer support, (4) Similarities and differences between career and non-career firefighters in experiencing and coping critical incidents.
Practical implications – Firefighters are an under-researched group in academic literature, that would
benefit from mental health counsellors having a better understanding of their unique work culture and the complexity of the firefighting profession. More knowledge about the role of informal peer support is necessary to tailor help and aftercare more effectively to their needs.
Originality/value – Most studies confirm the importance of informal peer support when coping with critical incidents. This study provides initial, in-depth evidence of the role of informal peer support in helping firefighters cope with critical incidents.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)300-311
Number of pages12
JournalInternational Journal of Emergency Services
Issue number2
Early online date26 Apr 2022
Publication statusPublished - 26 Apr 2022


  • Critical incident stress debriefing
  • Critical incidents
  • Firefighters
  • Informal peer support
  • Social support

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