September 4 - 10, 2022: Issue 553
Supporting Bushfire Responders: After The Fires Study Finds Gaps In Mental Health Resources Available For Firefighters After The 2019-2020 Firestorms
Get Ready Weekend will be held on September 17 and 18 2022. This year NSW RFS brigades across NSW will be welcoming back face-to-face Get Ready Weekend events, including many of our local RFS Brigades. ALL Local NSW RFS stations participating are listed at: www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/getready
By having a Bush Fire Survival Plan and knowing what you will do in the case of a bush fire, you can keep you and your family safe. Preparing your home is common sense and can be simple. In September every year NSW RFS Brigades will be out in your community helping you to get ready with advice, guidelines and resources.
Despite forecasts for a damp Spring and possibly wet Summer, preparing for the fire season is as important as ever, and Get Ready Weekend is perfect time of year to get ready.
A few years ago many of our local RFS volunteers and those who work in local NSW Fire and Rescue Brigades were getting ready to head north, south, and west to help fight the horrific firestorms of the 2019- 2020 Black Summer. Many commenced doing so from July 2019 when the fires first broke out and persisted in going to help others throughout the months that followed.
Visit: Mark Trollope: New South Wales Rural Fire Service Volunteer - January 2020 Local NSW RFS Volunteers Tribute and Sydney Wildlife Mobile Clinic's Inaugural Run Into The New South Wales Firegrounds Has Been Supported By The World's Leading Wildlife Organisations and Carers: January 2020 and Bush Fire Season Comes To A Close In NSW - April 2020
On Friday September 2nd the Australian Government Department of Health reiterated its continued support for the impacts of these fires on bushfire responders.
The 2019-20 Black Summer fire season was the most intense and sustained fire season Australia ever experienced. An estimated 39.8 million hectares burned. Three billion animals were killed or displaced. Three thousand homes were destroyed, and 33 people lost their lives.
Dr David Lawrence, University of Western Australia, leads ‘After the Fires’. This project is the largest ever pre- and post-bushfire survey of the mental health impacts of responding to bushfires.
Dr David Lawrence is a Principal Research Fellow with particular focus on child and adolescent mental health and the mental health of police and emergency services personnel. Dr Lawrence’s recent project, ‘Answering the Call’, was the first national study of police and emergency services mental health and the largest study of this area undertaken anywhere in the world.
After the Fires: Supporting the Ongoing Wellbeing and Resilience of Australia’s First Responders Following the 2019-20 Bushfires, is a national mixed-methods research study to examine the short and long-term impacts of direct and indirect exposure to the 2019-20 bushfire events on the wellbeing and resilience of Australian first responders.
After the Fires aimed to investigate the impacts of the bushfires on emergency services personnel, address key gaps in knowledge about how to foster resilience and coping, and investigate how to deliver effective support for mental health and wellbeing to Australian bushfire first responders. Over 4,000 personnel across fire and rescue, rural fire and state emergency service (SES) agencies across Australia participated in the After the Fires survey. Survey data have been weighted to represent the full population of emergency services personnel in Australia.
Across Australia, Dr. Lawrence found that 82,480 people responded to the fires. Of these, 17,980 were professional firefighters. Volunteers made up 64,500, or 78%, of first responders. David surveyed the firefighters twice - one and two years after the fires.
Many first responders faced traumatic or life-threatening events during the fires. More than 5000 reported a high need for mental health support. This included probable PTSD and thinking about suicide.
This data shows that two years after the fires, only 1000 people had received enough mental health support to meet their needs.
‘This is concerning because mental health problems escalate over time. Untreated symptoms progress and serious disorders can emerge many years later,’ David says. ‘By then they are much harder to treat.’
During the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires, on average, volunteers spent 3 weeks fighting fires with 9 nights away from home. Paid firefighters spent 4 weeks fighting fires with 14 nights away from home. 30% of paid firefighters volunteered for another 3 weeks fighting fires.
The warming and drying climate increases the risk of even longer, more destructive bushfire seasons in the future. This will expose first responders to more frequent traumatic events.
‘We found mental health risks for first responders are cumulative. The more traumatic events they experience over time, the more they need mental health support,’ Dr. Lawrence said.
David’s 2018 ‘Answering the Call’ report showed that professional first responder services across Australia have mental health support services for staff. Since then, professional firefighter agencies have continued to improve their workplace mental health programs.
After the Black Summer fires, there was a reduction in mental health issues among staff, compared to 2018. But among volunteers there was little change.
‘In extreme fire events like Black Summer there are so many fires in such a large area. We need a workforce more than 4 times bigger than all the paid firefighters in Australia,’ Dr. Lawrence states
‘Volunteers do the same work as highly trained and experienced paid firefighters. But the volunteers don’t have the same amount of training or resources.
‘Volunteer agencies are struggling to buy enough masks and personal protective equipment, to keep fire trucks up to date, and buy firefighting aircraft. They don’t have a lot of inhouse, coordinated mental health support.
‘In a warming climate, we will have more volunteers involved in dangerous and traumatic fire situations on a more regular basis. We need to ensure our volunteer fire fighting force is sustainable. We must prevent burnout and other mental health issues,’ David says.
David hopes his research will help bring about change.
‘We need to make sure that we can support communities to be able to look after themselves. Volunteer fire fighters need to get mental health support if they need it, so they can continue the important work that they're doing for us.
‘Changing the culture is a process. It’s going to take investment, planning, and time.’ Dr Lawrence says.
Extracts from the Executive Summary after the first survey state:
Mental health and wellbeing of personnel involved in the Black Summer bushfires
- Among personnel responding to the 2019-20 bushfires, 4.5% of volunteers and 5.1% of employees had probable PTSD at the time of the survey, representing an estimated 2,900 volunteers and 920 employees.
- 4.6% of volunteers and 5.5% of employees had very high psychological distress indicative of serious mental illness, representing an estimated 3,000 volunteers and 1,000 employees, compared with 4.0% of the Australian population.
- Additionally, 10.5% of volunteers and 14.5% of employees had high psychological distress indicative of less severe mental illness which would benefit from treatment, compared with 8.0% of the Australian population.
- 4.6% of volunteers and 4.9% of employees had seriously considered ending their own life in the year following the fires, 1.6% of volunteers and 2.3% of employees had a suicide plan, and 0.2% of volunteers and 0.3% of employees had attempted suicide. Rates of suicidal ideation and suicide plans were about twice as high as in the general population.
Experience of traumatic or life-threatening events
- 31% of volunteers and 25% of employees had felt there was a time when their life was threatened when responding to the 2019-20 bushfires.
- 22% of volunteers and 19% of employees had experienced one or more traumatic events that affected them deeply in the course of the 2019-20 bushfires.
- Overall 4,150 volunteers and 1,040 employees who were exposed to traumatic or life-threatening events during the bushfires had indicators of high need for mental health support – either probable PTSD, very high psychological distress or suicidal ideation. This is 2,540 and 520 personnel more than would have been expected to have such needs in the absence of the bushfires.
Support for mental health and wellbeing
- 58% of volunteers and 52% of employees with high need for mental health support – either probable PTSD, very high psychological distress or suicidal ideation – had not received any mental health treatment in the 12 months following the fires.
- Of those who received help, 32% of volunteers and 31% of employees reported that the help they received was provided through their organisation and the remainder obtained help outside of their organisation.
- Only 16% of volunteers and 22% of employees with high need for mental health support felt they received as much help as they needed.
- There are over 5,000 people who faced traumatic or life-threatening events while responding to the bushfires who have high need for mental health support, more than double the rate that would be expected. Around 1,000 of these have received a sufficient level of support for their needs.
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 of time. This can both expose people to risk of burnout and also negatively impact people if they don’t have time to process the experience of one event before moving on to the next.
One of the findings 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.
Dr. Lawrence is still analysing data from the second survey.
‘After the Fires’ is supported by $650,000 from the Medical Research Future Fund.
The full study results and data available so far may be accessed at: https://www.uwa.edu.au/projects/after-the-fires