More fire­fight­ers util­is­ing sup­port ser­vices in south

The Southland Times - - Front Page - Re­becca Moore re­becca.moore@stuff.co.nz

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.

ROBYN EDIE/ STUFF

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.

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