Mental health is at the forefront of a new study into how paid and volunteer firefighters cope with emergencies and the impact of the support that follows.
ACT Fire & Rescue and ACT Rural Fire Service firefighters will be among participants completing two surveys 12 months apart to give emergency services agencies across Australia more information about the jobs firies find hardest to deal with, how they cope with stress and the effectiveness of support from agencies, families and friends.
ACT Fire & Rescue chief officer Mark Brown said a University of Melbourne clinical psychologist would use the results to determine how best to support firefighters after traumatic situations and address the risks associated with developing post traumatic stress disorder.
He said a range of jobs could spark stress or a serious mental health condition.
“I’ve spoken to firefighters who have coped really well with attending 20 years of the most horrible incidents, car accidents and the like, and yet one small incident will trigger a reaction in those people and they’ve said to me, ‘I didn’t think I could ever react this way’,” he said.
“It might be something like attending a car accident where there are children involved who may remind them of their own children when they were growing up and can trigger a reaction that brings out that cumulative stress that’s built up over 20 years.
“Firefighters are quite often confronted by that because they thought it could never happen to them.”
The three-year study, funded by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, will complement the ACT agency’s existing mental health plan and five-year strategy.
Mr Brown said the agency provided a range of services to help firefighters deal with traumatic incidents, including a critical support team that contacted workers immediately after difficult jobs to make sure they were OK.
“Those more informal support networks are very, very important and we aim to supplement that with some more formal arrangements within the agency,” he said.
“One of things we can do is learn what is effective and what’s not effective in treating the stressors associated with responding to incidents and reducing the risk of post traumatic stress disorder … so the Emergency Services Agency can reframe its programs and make sure we’re giving the best support to our frontline firefighters.”
South Australia’s Country Fire Service and Northern Territory Fire & Rescue will also take part in the study, however Mr Brown expected other jurisdictions to get involved.
ACT Rural Fire Service chief officer Andrew Stark said post traumatic stress disorder would be a key element of the research.
“Post traumatic stress disorder impacts many emergency services workers,” he said.
“One of the key elements of this study is the focus on our firefighters, both volunteer and paid, to understand more about what we can do to mitigate the effect of this really damaging condition which at times can tragically end lives, ruin families and put lots of pressure on communities.
“We’re really pleased to be part of this study, to really gain a further understanding of the benefits of treatment options and the things that we can do to support our firefighters when they’re exposed to some really traumatic situations when they come to the aid of our community.”
Minister for Police and Emergency Services Joy Burch said the research was the first of its kind, with the first of the two surveys available to firefighters until November 13.
“Firefighters often put themselves in life-threatening situations, are there to help at times of major disaster and tragedy, have to make time critical, big decisions and as a result are exposed to major stressors,” she said.
“Workers can volunteer and complete the survey … That information will be used across services to make sure we have the best response, the best support, for these fabulous volunteers and workers.”
This article first appeared on ‘Canberra Times’ on 19 October 2015.