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2019 Illinois Firefighter Peer Support Symposium

The first ever Illinois Firefighter Peer Support Symposium is now one for the history books.  As a team member and an attendee, I  offer you my observations and experiences.  

From the opening keynote address by Tom Howard, I could feel the positive energy rise in the room as he promised we would leave with practical solutions that could be implemented as both self-care strategies, and knowledge to be shared with our peers back home.  Tom- by my own personal experience, you succeeded in this mission.  A job well done to you and everyone behind the scenes who made this happen.

The common theme of this 2-day symposium was about self-care.  Often times, those whom are employed in the helping fields (first responders and peer support team members for the purpose of this discussion),  become so immersed in assisting others in need,  that the ability to take the time to (as Chris Marella said) ” just chill out” falls by the wayside.  Chilling out will be a unique definition for each individual, but I am highly confident that the information shared on Thursday and Friday has provided a framework to do so.   To be the most highly functioning version of ourselves, we must pause and be mindful  to the areas of our mind, body, and spirit that we frequently neglect:  sleep, nutrition, exercise, and the nurturing of interpersonal relationships with our peers, family members, and our individual self.

There were so many incredible speakers whose presentations I wanted to attend, but was limited on each day.  However, this “good problem” (to quote Tom Howard) had an excellent remedy.  Prior to the  afternoon breakout sessions on each day,  a panel was assembled where all presenters participated in a Q and A discussion on the following topics: Our Lives are not Singular (day 1),  and Post-traumatic Growth (day 2).

It was awesome to see how an instant rapport was created among a group of people that included both meaningful discussion and playful banter.   During these panel sessions, each presenter shared enough of the most authentic version of his/her self so that even if I could not attend their breakout session, it inspired me to reach out and connect with them to learn more about what they are doing to make this world a better place to live.

Personally, I call this first symposium a resounding success as I received what I was looking for in the arena of personal growth.  I hope that all who attended were equally as enriched.  We would love to hear your feedback, so please post to our Facebook page or email Tom at : as I am sure he would greatly appreciate it.  I leave you with a few images (courtesy of our FB page)  from this great 2- day conversation.  Until next time –

Be well and take care,




ILFFPS Symposium Speaker Jon Sanders

This week we here from Symposium speaker Jon Sanders:



Tell our readers a little bit about your own journey
I started my career in the fire service in 2000 with the Peoria (IL) Fire Department.  I worked there until 2004 when I transitioned into pastoral ministry.  My family and I moved to a rural community in South Dakota and planted a church.  (It’s a long story, but over the years we’ve seen the church grow and I continue to serve as the Lead Pastor to this day.)  I stayed connected to fire and EMS serving on my local volunteer fire department and ambulance for a few years after moving to South Dakota.  About 4 years ago, I had the opportunity to return to full-time firefighting with the City of Sioux Falls. After graduating the academy and starting my work as a firefighter with Sioux Falls Fire Rescue, I was invited to begin serving on our Peer Support Team.  I had the idea to launch a podcast that is solely dedicated to helping the first responder community in this realm.  I call it The Fire Inside Podcast.  My desire is to bring hope and encouragement to other first responders by sharing stories of people who have overcome various challenges and are now thriving with mental health and resiliency.  I feel like l have found a great intersection of my passion for the fire service and my skill set with public speaking and ministry.
Give us a short summary about the topic you will be presenting at the symposium
I have been asked to lead a breakout session dealing with the subject of how having an active faith can be advantageous when it comes to mental, emotional, and physical health and wellbeing.  I’m calling my presentation “Faith in the Fire Service: 7 Ways Personal Faith Produces Great Public Servants”.  I want to put a huge disclaimer out there that even though I’m a pastor, I’m not approaching this talk from a standpoint of preaching or “converting” anyone to MY personal faith.  This conversation will highlight how any personal faith walk can have huge positive implications for us personally, for our crews, and for the communities we serve.  I can’t promise that I won’t pass the offering plates when I’m done speaking though!  (Just kidding.  I just wanted to beat you to the punchline!)  Most of the content for my session will be presented from the findings of numerous scientific and medical studies that have been done looking at how people who actively practice some form of religion/spirituality fare much better in physical, mental, and emotional health than those who don’t have a personal faith practice.
Should someone attend your session, what is one take-away (they will learn) that can be implemented immediately?
Essentially, after presenting the findings and evidence, I’m going to bring my presentation down to the following action steps:
  • Embrace faith – both your own personal faith, and the faith of others.  Even if you’re not a “religious” person, you need to recognize how invaluable someone else’s personal faith may be for them.
  • Explore faith.  I’m going to challenge you to dig deeper into your faith – whatever that may look like for you personally.
  • Express your faith.  I’m not talking about being that awkward guy or gal who no one wants to talk to because you’re always trying to impose your personal beliefs upon others.  I’m simply going to challenge my audience to live out their faith in practical ways that actually make a positive difference in their personal life and in the lives of others.
I look forward to meeting a bunch of you at the symposium and I would love to have you join me for one of my sessions!

Other Side of the Hero: Interview with Karen and Rico

Last week Jon Sanders, host of The Fire Inside Podcast interviewed co-producers of The Other Side of the Hero Karen Shopsowitz and Enrico Colantoni.  Karen and Rico recount their 5 year journey in the making of this extraordinary documentary.  Next week, we will hear more from Jon on what he will bring to next month’s symposium.  The screening of Hero will be on March 21st beginning at 6 pm – free to all attendees and a $10 donation from all others. This screening is open to family members of 1st responders, fire, police, dispatchers, recruits, and the general public who wish to take a peek into the lives of individuals after the uniform comes off.


Open up the link below to access The Fire Inside Podcast to listen to not only Karen and Rico, but Symposium speakers:

Tom Howard and Jeff Dill

Andy Perry

Wendy Lund

Annette Zapp

Chris Marella,

Jon Sanders

Jacqueline Toomey



ILLFPS Symposium Speaker Chris Marella

This week we hear from symposium speaker Chris Marella:



Tell our readers a little bit about your own journey

My journey in the fire service started in high school.  My brother was a part time firefighter for the Winfield Fire Protection District and got me involved in the explorer program.  After high school, I played two seasons of junior hockey while also working at Winfield and going to junior college.  It was a busy time in my life but I enjoyed the workload and I’ve been fortunate to continue to keep the pace high. From there I worked with Air Angels while going through paramedic school.  I also worked for PSI in Franklin Park, full-time in Alsip for a short stint.  and then full-time with the City of Elgin since 2008.  While in Elgin, I have worked as a strength and condition coach and personal trainer at LGN Performance, as well as being on the Health and Wellness Committee as the head of operations for the fire department.

Through my time in Elgin I have noticed a gap in the community and industry.  While many public fitness professionals are enthusiastic and well educated in fitness and training, there can be a great difference in the types of training that we as first responders need to have a long and healthy career, compared to the average person.  I created 4th Shift Fitness late in 2017 to fill that gap.  My mission with 4th Shift fitness is to educate and train fire service personnel to increase durability and decrease the potential for injuries and their associated costs.  By going to fire departments and using a combination of presentation and hands on, I can reach the front line of the fire service and help reduce the negative physical impacts of the job.

Give us a short summary about the topic you will be presenting at the symposium

My presentation at the symposium is titled The Road to Injury, and the Path Back.  We will be looking at how, as first responders, we get injured.  From on-scene, to weight room, to everyday life there are things we do and ways we move that contribute to injury.  The presentation focuses on what those things are, and how to get back from the injuries they cause.  The presentation includes plenty of physical cues as well as addressing the mental toll of injuries and rehab including managing expectations after injury.

Should someone attend your session, what is one take-away (they will learn) that can be implemented immediately?

The road to injury can be long and winding, as can the path back.  But there are several pit-stops along the way that we all pass through.  Aside from identifying the most common causes of injuries including a close look at back injuries, we will also be able to provide a wide-angle view of the impact of injuries.  Like any fire or ems scene, having that overall perspective of the evolving conditions can better prepare us to avoid danger, or give us the best chance of mitigating disaster.


ILFFPS Symposium Speaker Andy Perry

This week we hear from Symposium Speaker Andy Perry:


Andy Perry Headshot, ILFFPS Symposium 2019 Speaker


Tell our readers a little bit about your own journey

My name is Andy Perry.  I entered the fire service in 1991 as a volunteer firefighter in Marquette Heights, IL.  In 1993 I was hired by the City of Peoria, IL as a full time paid firefighter, where I still work as a Captain in suppression.  In 1998 I was diagnosed with PTSD as a result of a fire that left me separated from my crew in the attic of a three-story multi-dwelling fire.  A flashover occurred on the main level and I was running low on air, the hose line I was manning had burned in half, and I had no means to radio for help.  I was ultimately led to safety by my Captain who had reentered the structure and directed me to a porch roof on the second floor.  For a better part of a year following this incident, I struggled mightily with depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress.  In the time since, my symptoms have improved, but finding appropriate help was difficult.  Resources were not as readily available as they are today, and the stigma of weakness was much greater then as well.  Becoming a part of the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support Team (ILFFPS) opened my eyes to an ocean of help.  I discovered for the first time that I was not alone in the way I felt, I learned of many available resources for assistance, and I experienced the power of a conversation with my peers.

Give us a short summary about the topic you will be presenting at the symposium

At the symposium I will be making a presentation on how to construct a peer support team.  Topics discussed will include common barriers that other groups have run into in their attempts at creating similar groups.  Legal, confidentiality, and logistical aspects will be discussed at length.  An emphasis on how to maintain a team once its off and running will be addressed as well.

Should someone attend your session, what is one take-away (they will learn) that can be implemented immediately?

Participants in this session should be able to take away a general idea of how ILFFPS began and be provided with avenues to gain information on how to create their own team if they so desire.  For those in attendance that do not wish to start a team, the plentiful information presented will reinforce the value of the many outlets of assistance currently available to firefighters and paramedics in Illinois and throughout the country.

I look forward to meeting you in Oak Brook Il in March.

This panel is active and ready for you to add some widgets via the WP Admin