How the Brussels Fire Brigade is promoting mental health at work

Mental health has moved from a taboo subject to an essential health service that must be seriously considered. The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered the mental health and wellbeing of people worldwide, which has led to increased levels of anxiety, depression disorders and concerns about suicide ideation.

If mental health resources are essential for the general population, they are also crucial for emergency services.

Daily, firefighters are exposed to countless distressing events that place them at risk for mental illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorders (PTSD).

However, firefighters and other emergency professionals are taught and expected to control their emotions as these critical situations they deal with are considered occupational hazards.

According to the International Association of Firefighters, “1 in 5 firefighters will struggle with behavioural health issues, including depression, at some point in their careers.” Besides that, “Firefighters are three times more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.”[1]

To improve the mental health of staff, more and more Fire departments are adopting Peer Support Programmes and other resources to provide treatment to firefighters in need. We highlight the Share the Load Initiative, an American Support Programme for firefighters and EMS staff and the Heroes Health Initiative. In this app, first responders and healthcare professionals can find different mental health resources and track their mental health by, for example, doing a weekly survey.

Figure 1 – Heroes Health Initiative: Weekly survey to track wellness

In recent years the Brussels Fire Brigade has put in place different initiatives to improve mental health and ensure the wellbeing of the staff. For example, a group of trusted people internally allows professionals to individually or in groups confide thoughts and feelings. This psychological support can be required during working hours.

This year, they hired an external company to assess the wellbeing of the staff of the PSAP and understand how stress levels could be reduced. This investigation that is still ongoing aims to reduce the gaps that exist since, according to the management, it is sometimes not easy for people to express their opinion and manage to express themselves critically in a hierarchical environment.

This Brigade also has a social service that helps, for example, staff to deal with grief and other problems that may arise in their personal lives, such as financial issues.

One of the other initiatives to increase staff retention was the possibility for dispatchers to work part-time, as most of the time, these professionals become dispatchers due to injuries. This possibility enabled the motivation of young people to join the dispatching as they can combine it with other operational tasks, which has been an uplift to the PSAP.

“Specifically for the 112-PSAP, we have set up a “wellbeing” cell 3 years ago. This cell currently consists of 5 call-takers who take all kinds of initiatives such as the organisation of the 112day, testing new chairs, installing a new fitness area, etc. We strongly believe in the empowerment and engagement of our PSAP staff. Both aspects contribute to mental health and wellbeing as they expand their horizon”, says Major Spencer Smolders.

In May 2022, the Fire Brigade of Brussels (SIAMU) held a surprise team building event in Waterloo for the PSAP personnel. For the first time in history, this event took place, whose purpose was to value the staff and contribute to the mental health and wellbeing of the entire team.

Split into two groups, 78 professionals from this 112 PSAP and dispatching fire department, including firefighters, call-takers, the medical board and the operational board, were able to experience a day with different activities outside the workplace that allowed them to get to know their colleagues better and decompress from work.

Using Tuckman’s Model (Forming, Storming, Norming, Performing and Adjourning), the teams made different group dynamics to increase the trust in colleagues, improve the communication between teams and the sense of gratification through the exchange of compliments between co-workers.

In a simplified way, this model defends that as a team develops and establishes deeper relationships (TRUST), the leadership model moves to a more collaborative approach.

Figure 2 – Team development stages. Source: Okpalad, based on Tuckman and Jensen (1977)2

This team building considered the needs of staff, such as professionals with reduced mobility or who spend a lot of time sitting, as is the case with call-takers, in order to respect their limits but at the same time allow them to enjoy the activity.

Major Spencer Smolders, Officer at the Fire Department of Brussels and organiser of this activity explained the importance of this event for his team.

“The wellbeing of our 112-call-takers and our firefighters’ dispatchers is worth looking at. That’s why we pushed our board to authorise the organisation of an interactive day for them — the first one in the history of the Brussels Fire Department. We spent a half-day working around communication and collaboration and another half-day experiencing an actual team building event.

It was beautiful to see how the energy between our colleagues was growing during this day. Of course, you need a profound preparation to get a positive result, but the return is fantastic.”

Figure 3 – Team building activity carried out by the Brussels Fire Brigade

“We obtained more security, motivation, inspiration, and goodwill between colleagues, resulting in more trust between peers. This is fundamental to boosting cohesion and the efficiency in a PSAP. It’s a big step forwards in the progress of our organisation. I have to add that everybody was smiling during and after our adventure. We hope that more initiatives like these can be promoted since a happier staff leads to a happier working environment.

Additional but important, our colleagues felt respected by the management and appreciated this opportunity.”

Although these team building initiatives have positive results, they must be integrated into a comprehensive and holistic approach to mental health promotion with the framework to support and improve staff mental health, reduce the risk for suicide, and better prepare emergency professionals emotionally, psychologically and physically for the traumatic event and work distress that they and their peers harden daily.



Author: Marta Azevedo Silva, Former Communications and Press Manager at EENA

The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of EENA. Articles do not represent an endorsement by EENA of any organisation.

This blog post was authored at by the EENA staff. | Website | + posts

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