Many firefighters will by now be exhausted, having been on the front line of Australia’s bushfire crisis for weeks or months.
This bushfire season has been unrelenting, and the hottest months of summer may still lie ahead.
In part, the toll is physical. The flames are high, they are intense, and they move fast. It’s hard to breathe because the air is so hot.
At the same time, first responders have witnessed widespread devastation. To land and livelihoods, to people and animals. Meanwhile, grief for the death of fellow firefighters feels raw, and the risk to their own lives very real.
We’re right to be concerned about firefighters’ mental health.
Every 4.3 weeks, a firefighter, paramedic or police officer dies by suicide – and that’s when it’s “business as usual”.
Research shows our first responders are more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health condition than the overall Australian population. They are more than twice as likely to think about suicide, and three times as likely to have a suicide plan.
This paints a grim picture of the well-being of a population who dedicate their professional lives to helping others.
It’s likely responding to a disaster on the scale of the current bushfires could increase the risk of mental illness for some.
If firefighters are not coping, they may develop psychological disorders including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and substance abuse.
PTSD develops when a person isn’t able to recover after experiencing a traumatic event.
Some firefighters may develop symptoms while they’re still fighting the fires. They may feel on edge, but push down their fears to get on with the job. However, it’s more likely symptoms will only appear weeks, months, even years down the track.
PTSD is associated with significant impairment in day-to-day functioning socially and at work. For firefighters and others with PTSD, typical symptoms or behaviours will include:
reliving the traumatic event. People with PTSD describe vivid images and terrifying nightmares of their experience
avoiding reminders of what happened. They may become emotionally numb and isolate themselves to avoid any triggers
being constantly tense and jumpy, always looking out for signs of danger.
Volunteers in regional communities are particularly susceptible to trauma. They have often joined fire brigades to help protect their own communities, and then face trying to save their own homes or those of neighbours and friends.
We also need to be mindful of retired firefighters for whom these current bushfires will have triggered painful and disturbing memories. They may not currently be on the front lines, but they only need to turn on the television, open the newspaper, or look at social media to be taken straight back to Black Saturday or whatever particular event is distressing for them.
The increased prevalence of mental health issues among emergency responders suggests many existing emergency service well-being programs are failing those who need them the most.
In Australia, these programs are largely based on a what’s called a “resilience model” that focuses on people “reaching out” and seeking help when they need it.
First responders may be unlikely to take this initiative in the middle of a mental health crisis, when it’s often a struggle even to pick up the phone to a loved one, friend or colleague.
Instead, we need an approach to well-being that removes the onus on the individual. We need to shift our thinking from a model that requires the individual to “reach out”, to a model that also values others “reaching in” to identify those who may be struggling.
Ambulance Victoria’s Peer Support Dog Program, which allows staff to bring in accredited dogs to create social interactions and conversations, is a good example of how “reaching in” helps with first responder well-being. This kind of approach empowers people through social connections and the appreciation they are also supporting others.
While employers need to do more in to facilitate “reach in” programs, anyone can create informal support networks. Whether friendship groups, community groups, sporting groups, or something else, the underlying thread should be a committment to each other’s well-being.
As we continue to contend with this crisis, ensuring firefighters feel supported can make a difference to their well-being. If you see a responder in the street, say thank you. If you see one in a cafe, shout them a cuppa. If you have kids, get them to write a letter or draw a picture and drop it off to the local emergency services station.
We can’t eliminate the risk firefighters will suffer with mental health problems after what they’ve been through, but these little acts of kindness can make a difference.
If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
The early and ferocious start to the bushfire season in Australia this year has raised questions about the impact on those at the frontline – the tens of thousands of volunteers helping to put out the blazes.
In Australia, the vast majority of bushfire fighters are volunteers. In the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, for instance, volunteers account for 89% of the workforce.
And with fire seasons due to become longer and bushfires more intense due to the impacts of climate change, this will place even more demands on the men and women undertaking this vital and demanding work.
Given this, it’s important for us to understand how our worsening bushfires are affecting the mental and physical health of volunteers. Is this causing burnout? And if so, is that making it more difficult for fire and emergency services to recruit new volunteers and keep the ones they have?
Of course, the impact of today’s bushfires needs to be viewed within the context of other challenges to volunteer recruitment and retention.
Two of the key factors are greater competition for people’s time – for example, due to changes in the nature of paid work – and the increasing difficulty of balancing work, family and volunteer commitments.
The ways people choose to volunteer are also changing. Many people are choosing more flexible, shorter-term and cause-driven ways of volunteering and eschewing the kind of structured, high-commitment volunteering that is common in the emergency services.
At the same time, rural communities are facing a shrinking volunteer base as people either leave for better opportunities in cities or can no longer perform strenuous volunteering roles.
Meanwhile, a lot has been said about younger generations being less motivated by altruistic values to volunteer.
However, there is considerable evidence that younger people are highly committed to making a positive contribution to society. They are just doing it differently than their parents – they are tapping into the power of social media and working outside of formal, structured organisations.
Changes to emergency management services are also at play. One of the most significant shifts has been the professionalisation, corporatisation and modernisation of volunteer-based emergency services in recent years.
While this has undeniably brought improvements to volunteer safety and the quality of service, it has also caused headaches for volunteers in the form of more bureaucracy and additional training requirements.
There is a risk this could drive a wedge between the corporate goals of fire and emergency service agencies that focus on risk management and efficiency, for example, and their more traditional, community-based roots – the reason many people choose to volunteer in the first place.
There are also economic burdens for both volunteers and their employers, as well as strains on their family members.
Additionally, with the likelihood of more intense bushfires in the future, volunteers will increasingly be asked to travel outside their own communities to fight fires in other regions, further complicating their lives.
Having said this, support for volunteers is available and improving. In my ongoing research with other academics at the Bushfire and Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre, interviewees report improvements in operational equipment, technology and procedures that are enhancing volunteer safety.
Emergency services are also increasing mental health and well-being support for volunteers and developing more diverse and flexible ways for people to fit volunteering into their lives.
There is also a strong commitment to improving diversity and inclusion across the sector.
Even though fighting fires is obviously demanding work, it is also extremely fulfilling and rewarding. Core reasons that people choose to volunteer include helping the community, learning new skills, feeling useful and doing something worthwhile, and experiencing camaraderie with others.
In our ongoing research, we are consistently hearing that the personal fulfilment and rewards of volunteering are not being adequately communicated to the public. If they were, a lot more people would offer their services.
In addition, many volunteering roles do not require people to be on the front lines at all. There are a large number of opportunities to support fire prevention, response and recovery well beyond the fires themselves.
We also know that everyday people are deeply motivated to help others in the face of disaster. Indeed, NSW RFS and QFES are likely to see an upswing in people inquiring about volunteering in the aftermath of the current fires.
However, there is one important thing to note: the best time to approach emergency services about volunteering is before an event, rather than during one.
If we are fighting bushfires into the next decade with the same or declining numbers of volunteers, using the same approaches we use today, then clearly the job will be much harder and the demands on volunteers will become more extreme.
The key variable that will make the most difference for volunteers is the willingness and commitment of emergency services, governments, society and volunteers themselves to embrace change to current practices.
This includes a greater investment in risk reduction, new operational approaches and involving volunteers more in organisational decision making. Emergency services providers should also be working more closely with community organisations to better understand and target the particular needs of different communities.
Whatever choices we make, we cannot leave it to our front line volunteers to bear an increasing burden of fighting the bushfires of the future.
The impacts of the bushfires that are overwhelming emergency services in New South Wales and Queensland suggest houses are being built in areas where the risks are high. We rely heavily on emergency services to protect people and property, but strategic land-use planning can improve resilience and so help reduce the risk in the first place. This would mean giving more weight to considering bushfire hazards at the earliest stages of planning housing supply.
The outstanding dedication of emergency agencies such as the NSW Rural Fire Service and Queensland Fire and Emergency Service is obvious in their efforts to save lives and properties despite the increasing intensity of fires. However, strategic land-use planning could help reduce the risks by being more responsive to such changes in hazards.
Comprehensive management of bushfire risk should include a strategic planning focus on reducing the pressures on emergency services and communities. We may have to rethink land-use planning approaches that prove inadequate to deal with the increasing intensity and unpredictability of natural hazards.
Strategic planning policies and practices provide the opportunity to be more attentive to changes in bushfire hazards in particular. Planning decisions that fail to do this may leave communities exposed and heavily reliant on emergency services during a disaster.
Locating new or expanding existing settlements and infrastructure in areas exposed to unreasonable risk is irresponsible.
The increasing intensity of hazards associated with climate change makes strategic planning even more relevant. Land-use planners could help greatly with building resilience by placing natural hazards at the top of their assessment criteria.
Coordinating land-use planning reforms is itself a challenge. Planning in Australia involves many policies, institutions, professions and decision-makers. Policies and processes differ depending on the state or territory.
Furthermore, planners must reconcile the demand for residential land from population growth and the need to protect the environment. Deciding where to locate housing is often fraught with complexity, so the process needs expert early input from relevant scientific communities and emergency services.
Land-use planning offers an opportunity in the earliest phase of development to manage the combined pressures of population growth, urban expansion, increasing density and risks of natural hazards.
When rezoning land for residential development, many issues have to be considered. These include environmental sustainability, demand for housing and the location of existing buildings and infrastructure, as well as natural hazards. It’s a complex and intricate process, but clearly the strategic planning stage is the first opportunity to minimise exposure to bushfire risk.
Existing policy and processes may defer the detailed review of bushfire risk and other natural hazards to development stages after land has been rezoned. There’s a case for policy to increase the importance attached to bushfire hazards at this early stage.
Ultimately, strategic planners aim to locate settlements away from risk of natural hazards. However, bushfires continue to have disastrous impacts on people and properties. Ongoing demand for housing may add pressure to build in areas exposed to risk.
Settlements are pushing into undeveloped areas that are more likely to be exposed to bushfire risk. The role of strategic land-use planning then becomes even more critical. The devastation we have seen this month shows why this risk must be given the highest priority in land-use planning, particularly when zoning land as residential.
The increasing intensity of bushfires points to a need to rethink planning processes and mitigation strategies to reduce exposure to such hazards before they arise. This will help ease the burden on emergency services of managing a disaster when it happens. We can’t ignore the opportunities to minimise the risks at the early stages of land-use planning. Key steps include:
Mark Maund, PhD Candidate, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle; Kim Maund, Discipline Head – Construction Management, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle, and Thayaparan Gajendran, Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Built Environment, University of Newcastle