Trauma affects helpers too
TOUGH. Brave. Resilient.
These are all adjectives one could apply to firefighters, however underneath their often cool demeanours, firies are human and often touched by what they see in their line of duty.
Attending traffic collisions can have a disturbing impact on volunteers with the Country Fire Authority, particularly in tight knit country communities where firefighters may often know their victims. Sometimes they are even family.
That is why the CFA maintains the Peer Support Program, comprising CFA volunteers charged with the responsibility of caring for fellow volunteers’ welfare after a major crash or fire.
Graeme Reid of the Inverloch CFA is one of several peers in South Gippsland and could be called to an incident anywhere in Victoria or interstate.
As a retired Uniting Church minister, he is an apt choice for the role but his experience on the frontline as a CFA volunteer ensures he can relate to his colleague’s trauma.
“We mingle with crews as they come off the fire ground and ask them how they are feeling and if there is anything we can help with.
“We step the firefighter through the event and try to help them see that what they are feeling is a natural reaction to an unnatural situation.”
The role can vary from incident to incident. At the Hazelwood coal mine blaze, Graeme distributed gum boots and accompanied an injured firefighter to hospital in the back of an ambulance.
The CFA veteran of 41 years has also brought a firefighter home from a fire after that volunteer received urgent family news.
“We are peer support because we have been there and seen what the firies have gone through.”
Until the devastating Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983, there was no such role as peers in the CFA.
“I can recall attending an aircraft accident with four fatalities and when it was all over, we just got on with life and that was what was expected of us.
“Then out of Ash Wednesday it was realised that traumatic events do have their impact on firefighters and all this evolved.
“The role has gone from being concerned just with traumatic events to the welfare of brigade members.”
That includes volunteers’ family issues and funerals, and financial issues.
“Peers get what information we can about concerns without getting too involved and then refer firefighters onto proper counsellors.
“There is no doubt it helps them to settle down and not feel isolated.”
The work of peers helps the CFA retain volunteers by easing the blow of negative experiences they have may endured.
Peer candidates undergo an interview and if successful, undertake a course, and are then subject to performance reviews in their first year.
Other peers in South Gippsland are at Dumbalk, Mirboo North, Loch and Koonwarra brigades.
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