More firefighters utilising support services in south
An increase in the distressing type of work firefighters do and a change in the ‘‘harden up’’ attitude has led to more southern firefighters seeking counselling and psychological support.
The number of fire service staff in Southern brigades, from Waitaki River south, using support services increased from three in 2012, to 68 in 2017.
There are about 100 rural and urban brigades in the region.
In the first three months of this year, 49 Fire and Emergency New Zealand staff in the area sought out counselling and psychological support.
Southland area commander Julian Tohiariki said numbers increased both because of more distressing work, including firefighters attending motor vehicle crashes and an increasing numbers of medical callouts, often as first responders.
Also, attitudes towards seeking help were changing, Tohiariki said.
The increasing number of people using the services were in line with what he was seeing in the workforce. ‘‘I’d like the numbers to increase because it means people are using the systems.’’
In the past, firefighters either did not know they needed help or felt they could not ask for help.
‘‘For a good five years, as an organisation and leaders in Southland, we’ve changed that perception.’’
Services ranged from peer support to sessions with a trained psychologist, and were not only for work-related stress, but also personal, he said.
Southland assistant area commander Deane Chalmers said three suicides of staff in the Otago Southland region (in Invercargill in October last year, in Dunedin in November last year, and in Clyde in May) were a wake up call for crews.
It was not known if the reasons for suicide were work or personal.
‘‘They affected the brigade . . . noone is immune to it. There is a positive culture here [at Invercargill Fire Station] but it is okay to ask for help.’’
Those who died will have a legacy that would continue through conversations about mental health and wellbeing, Chalmers said.
‘‘We’re upskilling our people to recognise signs and symptoms.
‘‘This brigade here is very close. The conversations tend to be like family.’’
Attitudes towards dealing with
‘‘There is a positive culture here [at Invercargill Fire Station] but it is okay to ask for help.’’ Southland assistant area commander Deane Chalmers
stress or distress had changed from when Chalmers joined the service in 1996.
‘‘The stoic attitude of ‘harden up, take a teaspoon of concrete’, is detrimental to mental health. We’re working hard to break those barriers down.’’
It was often partners or other family members who recognised when a crew member was not acting themselves, Chalmers said.
Fire and Emergency NZ chief executive’s office director Leigh Deuchars said the nature of the work meant staff encountered a wide range of risks to their physical safety and psychological wellbeing.
He was pleased staff and their families were accessing the support available.
Since the establishment of Fire and Emergency NZ in July last year, confidential counselling and support services were opened up to all staff and their immediate families at no cost to them.
The services can be accessed for both work-related and non-workrelated issues.
Southland assistant area commander Deane Chalmers believes it is important for volunteer and career firefighters to talk about mental health and seek support if needed.