Study highlights impact of trauma on firefighters

Tuesday, 13 February, 2018

Study highlights impact of trauma on firefighters

More support will be provided for firefighters, following a study into their mental and physical health.

The South Australian Metropolitan Fire Service (MFS) and the University of Adelaide have conducted the study in order to gain a more accurate picture of workplace health.

In particular, the MFS wanted to better support and manage the risks to employee health, right from the time they are recruited and all the way through to their retirement years.

In all, 578 MFS firefighters volunteered to participate in the study. This documented the lifetime cumulative exposure to emergency incidents that they had attended, including those involving serious injuries, fatalities and distressed people.

The study estimates that about 5% of firefighters meet criteria for PTSD, with exposure to workforce trauma an inherent part of a firefighter’s role. It contains a number of recommendations for the MFS to consider and implement.

“This study is the first time internationally that there has been a systematic assessment, using a gold standard methodology, of mental health and wellbeing of an emergency service — a service we all rely on to keep us safe and protect our property. This approach allowed a comparison with the mental health of the Australian community and the Australian Defence Force, who have similar high levels of traumatic exposures,” said the director of the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies, Professor Sandy McFarlane, who led the study.

“The report has highlighted that there are significant mental health and wellbeing issues among firefighters stemming from the nature of their work. These affect social and family aspects of their lives as well as workplace function and need to be addressed with integrated and strategic workplace programs.

“The challenge now is to optimise preventive measures so that those who volunteer their services to protect the community are able to have a long career without adverse consequences to their mental and physical health.”

The MFS will now enhance existing support systems by establishing a dedicated Wellness and Safety Department that unites its Employee Support and Work Health and Safety functions.

The creation of the new department is in keeping with the study’s findings of a strong relationship between mental and physical health.

One of the department’s first initiatives will be the implementation of Mental Health First Aid training for all personnel. This will better equip staff to identify if a colleague requires help.

Prevention of physical injury and mental health issues such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety and depression will also be a focus of the department.

The MFS has also fully funded the development of Australia’s first Mental Health First Aid training film specifically designed for first responders, which will be launched nationally this month.

“I’d like to thank all firefighters who participated in this important study. It is not an easy task to look back through your career to recall and recount traumatic emergency incidents. However, their open, honest input will benefit the mental and physical wellbeing of the MFS workforce for many years to come,” said Metropolitan Fire Service (MFS) Chief Officer Greg Crossman.

“We also anticipate that other emergency services agencies across Australia will be able to take learnings from this groundbreaking study, so the benefits will stretch beyond South Australia.”

The study was funded by a National Health and Medical Research Council Partnership Grant.

The results of the study will be provided to all staff and an opportunity will be provided in the near future for firefighters and staff to learn more.

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