The unprecedented intensity and severity of the 2019/20 bushfires have impacted communities across Australia in significant ways. Not least may be the impact on the mental wellbeing of those who responded to the call to fight the fires, many of whom were volunteers. Academics Dr DAVID LAWRENCE and WAVNE RIKKERS detail their continuing research in the area of Australian firefighter wellbeing.
Cumulative exposure to traumatic events can negatively affect the wellbeing of those called on to respond to critical incidents and emergencies. With a warming and drying climate, understanding how to effectively support the wellbeing of volunteer and paid firefighters is a critical part of preparing our nation for the possibility of further significant bushfire seasons in future years.
Our team at The University of Western Australia recently conducted Answering the call: the first national mental health and wellbeing study of police and emergency services on behalf of Beyond Blue. With more than 21,000 first responders participating, including more than 5000 rural fire service and SES volunteers, the study provided the first national picture of the factors that enhance or impede the mental wellbeing of our first responders.
Following the devastating 2019/20 bushfires, the Australian Government has provided additional funding through the Medical Research Future Fund to support our continuing research into the ongoing wellbeing of our volunteer and paid first responders. We will work with our partners, Roy Morgan Research, to conduct a new study over the course of the next two years which will focus on the impacts of the recent bushfire season on those emergency services most closely involved.
Due to the sustained and widespread nature of the 2019/20 bushfire season, the unusually large number of volunteers called out, the duration of commitment, the unprecedented severity of the fires and the unexpected nature of some of the events that occurred, it is highly likely that a proportion of first responders will experience psychological impacts and need support.
What we have learnt so far about supporting the wellbeing of emergency services personnel
Answering the call showed that cumulative exposure to traumatic events can have negative consequences over the course of someone’s career, and emergency services personnel are at higher risk of developing mental health issues than the general population. However, it is not just the nature of extreme events that has an impact, but how we respond to them. One critically important factor is recognising changes in wellbeing early and taking appropriate action to seek help when it is needed.
Often mental health issues develop slowly over a period of months or years. Early action can prevent the development of serious problems and can be the difference between needing only one or two sessions of counselling and experiencing a lengthy period of debilitating illness. Answering the call found that many first responders in need of help often avoid seeking help in a timely fashion or do not receive enough help for their needs.
Workplace culture makes a difference
How workplaces and organisations respond when traumatic events occur matters. The relationship between personnel and their superiors and their organisations can have a strong influence on wellbeing. Answering the call found that personnel who have supportive supervisors and workmates, who work in teams with positive and open attitudes towards mental health and wellbeing, and whose workplaces have low levels of stigma towards mental health were less likely to develop mental health issues, and less likely to be significantly impacted if they do occur.
Workplaces that are more inclusive, that provide opportunities to discuss work events and emotional issues, that are more supportive and have more positive communications have lower rates of mental health issues. A culture of believing that first responders must be tough and impervious to what they see can result in people suppressing their feelings. The role of first responders is to help in times of critical emergencies. In many organisations there is a long-standing culture of believing that the people who help others in times of emergencies should never need to ask for help themselves and should be strong enough to never be impacted by anything they experience.
In reality, the overwhelming majority of volunteer and paid firefighters join up because they want to serve their communities and help in times of need. They care about their communities and are likely to be impacted, as anyone would be, when they witness disasters befalling their communities. Changing this longstanding culture will be a slow process, but it is a vitally important step to supporting the wellbeing of firefighters and other first responders. Australia’s first responders have high levels of resilience, but nobody can be completely resilient to every possible event that could occur.
Duration of intense work and avoiding burnout
Intense work demands sustained over a long period can also pose a risk to wellbeing. One of the many challenges of the 2019/20 fires was their duration and intensity, which saw many volunteers undertaking challenging levels of work for long periods. This can both expose people to risk of burnout and also negatively impact people if they do not have time to process the experience of one event before moving on to the next. One of the lessons of Answering the call was the importance of taking a break after attending a particularly traumatic or intense event, before going on to the next job.
In large-scale disasters it is not always possible to take time out, and first responders will keep working as long as they are needed and are able to. A challenge for our future bushfire preparedness is sustaining a volunteer workforce of sufficient size and capacity to be able to respond to large-scale events without overtaxing volunteers to the point where they are at risk of burnout. This means both maintaining the existing volunteer workforce through providing the support, training and resources they need, and recruiting and training new volunteers in recognition of the increasing demands being placed on existing volunteers through more intense fire seasons.
Our ongoing research
Over the next two years we will continue to study the wellbeing of firefighters and other first responders to provide a comprehensive picture of the impacts of the 2019/20 bushfires. This information will help us to understand what is needed to effectively support the long-term wellbeing of our volunteer and paid firefighters, and how to foster their resilience and ability to cope both now and into the future. We will continue to work with partners such as the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre to ensure the information gained is fed into the development of strategies and programs to most effectively support the wellbeing of Australia’s first responders, and maintain our ability to respond to bushfire events in the future.
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