Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Education and Employment References Committee
25/09/2018
Mental health conditions experienced by first responders, emergency service workers and volunteers

FUSCA, Mr Rosario (Ross), Private capacity

JONES, Mr Pat, Private capacity

KIRWAN, Mr Peter, Private capacity

[ 0 9:46]

ACTING CHAIR: Welcome. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. I 'll now invite each of you to make a short opening statement and then we will ask you some questions. An yone has a preference to start? Mr Jones , you're up first.

Mr Jones : Thank you. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to come and talk to you today , and I really appreciate the work that you're doing for all first responders across Australia. I just want to give you a bit of background , and I understand you've read my submission . I'm the son of a World War II veteran. We grew up in an area where there were a lot of a rmy veterans and war veterans . M y wife is the daughter of a Korean War veteran , so I've got a fair bit of an understanding of what it's like to live with veterans and what those people have been through.

I lived with a number of behavio u rs in my family , working with other families and living with other families that I didn't really understand when I was growing up . A lot of those behaviours were very confronting , and I 'm just recently starting to understand where those people were coming from and why they act ed the way they did because I'm starting to see a lot of those behaviours in myself , in the people that I work with and the people that I care about w ithin the fire service that I come from .

M y father grew up never discussing his war service , never wearing his decorations that he was awarded as a war veteran and refus ing to be a part of any celebration of war. I'm starting to understand , as a senior firefighter , that I' m see ing that kind of behaviour amongst a lot of people : when you put the uniform on , you ' r e 10- f ee t tall and bulletproof ; w hen you take it off , you're a very vulnerable person.

I started my role as a superintendent with ACT Fire and R escue on the 13 February 2009 . M y very first job on that day was to approve a list of staff that were deployed to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires. Amongst that list of staff that I approved on that day was a very good friend of mine and a family friend called David Balfour . David was killed in the line of duty , supporting the state of Victoria and supporting our staff. That took a very big toll on me , and it will stay with me for the rest of my life that I made the decision to send that man to Victoria .

I'll never forget the time that we presented his family with the National Emergency M edal. I t was like we were giving them back a part of David that they could hold and cherish. It was a very tough time to do that , but the biggest concern was the effort and the amount of bureaucracy to have our nation recognise the effort and the sacrifice that David had made . That the bureaucracy didn't support that process astounded me.

I just want to conclude —and I'm not going to take up too much time because my colleagues here have got a lot to say as well —that, without coordinated support and national recognition , we risk creating a generation of damaged firefighters and other first responders that will be the same as the generation that I grew up watching : my father , my family and his friends.

I'm very passionate about the recognition that we provide to our first responders. Hence , my submission to you , and I look forward to any assistance you can provide to us , as first responders , to make our way through this bureaucratic nightmare that is the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet h ono urs and a wards secretar iat.

ACTING CHAIR: Mr Kirwan.

Mr Kirwan : Thank you. Firstly I'd like to thank the c ommittee for allowing me to appear before you. I made my submission to this inquiry as I am a first responder who has a lived experience of mental illness. I am also certain that my journey wasn't the hardest or the worst , but it has certainly left a mark on me. The two hardest conversations I have ever had relate to my mental illness. The first was when I sat my two children down and told them I was sick. My son was about 10 and my daughter was eight. I explained to them that I was unwell and that , if I was being unreasonable , just to walk away from me . I knew by that stage I'd become a bad dad.

My second hardest conversation was with my psychologist . T he psychologist I clicked with was not my first psychologist; she was my third . My initial consultation was supposed to be 40 minutes , but it ran for an hour and 40 minutes . I walked out of the session both physically and emotionally drained , but it was the start of my recovery . I've also seen both sides of the mental health journey.

A couple of years ago , I was the last person my brother spoke to before disappearing in remote Australia and attempting suicide. He was also a first responder , and whilst that was not the sole factor in his suicide attempt it was certainly one of the factors . H e has just recently made the decision that he wants to live. It is tough in regional Australia , though , to get professional help.

Another story I'd like to briefly tell you is of a training event that I conducted in a fire station in a mining town. I was training them on industrial and domestic rescue , and going through the differences between that and motor vehicle rescue. I was struggling to engage my learners , and I decided to play a video about my mental health journey. At this stage , the video was probably not for public release ; it was part of a research project . S o I played it anyway , gave a quick talk on mental health and then broke for morning tea . A t morning tea , four of the staff at this fire station came up to me individually and told me about how they were currently struggling with mental illness and nobody else there knew.

We live in a society where four first responders are willing to risk their lives not only for complete strangers but also for their colleagues , y et can't speak out to seek help and say they're not okay. For me , it's not only what we do after the first responder gets sick but what we do before as well as the workplace culture that can make a difference.

I appreciate th at most first responder organis ations are government departments and with that comes a responsibility to the people of Australia , although sometimes dollars take precedence over sense . Evidence used in decision- making is sometimes focused on the cost value of the solution , rather than a whole -of- evidence review. An example of this , I believe , is peer support services , where other first responders volunteer their time to undergo some training to enable them to support their c olleagues on a voluntary basis. Is this a better solution than realistic evidence based simulation of what our first responders are likely to encounter ? I don't know. The problem is that one is cheap and the other expensive and , in times of reducing budgets , low- cost options may be implemented over solutions with more efficiency.

I thank the c ommittee for looking into this very important topic and , regardless of the outcome , j ust talking about it openly helps reduce the stigma associated with mental illness and can potentially enable help- seeking behaviours. Thank you .

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you very much. Mr Fusca.

Mr Fusca : Thank you. I echo previous speakers on the great effort the committee is undertaking to shine a light on this horrible curse that goes through the first responder community. My submission clearly states that I was previously a Federal Police officer —an operational police officer who undertook a number of duties. One of those duties was also a s a welfare officer for the Federal Police in Melbourne , Victoria and Tasmania . I'm now I 'm a welfare officer assisting firefighters in Victoria , employed by the United Firefighters Union.

I bring to the committee a concern that the correlations and the experiences I had in the late nineties as a welfare officer and in the 2000s as an operational police officer, and what I see now in the fire service in Victoria —the similarities— are quite uncanny and unfortunate. Therefore I just wanted to be given the opportunity to tell the committee that , although it's 2018 , there's still a lot of work to be done. Things are better than they were in 2000. My experiences with the AFP when I suffered a mental illness were that my managers didn't want to believe that someone like me could be ill. When I put my WorkCover claim in , they refuted it . I n the process of refuting it , they emptied out my gun locker and excluded me from entry into my workplace. So , clearly someone thought that I was mentally unwell but they were opposing my claim . Anyway, that was resolved sometime down the track and , having to relive the incident over and over and over , having to convince people that something did occur to me and finally having the claim accepted was justification for what I' d done.

I see similarities in the fire service in Victoria. Although things are better , there's still a long way to go. M y operational experience and the training I had as a welfare officer made me a better supervisor , and I was able to under stand people and manage them a lot better. So , I bring that experience and knowledge into the fire service . I n the years that I've been there , I've had over 180 contacts. I think my submission only related up until February of this year . The increases I don't think it's a reflection of what I do ; i t's more a reflection of the fact that people feel comfortable speaking to me because I'm not associated with their workplace .

Another issue that needs to be addressed is: employers need to gain the trust of their employees so that there's a relationship to provide the appropriate support. I welcome any questions about my service in the Federal Police , my exposure to trauma and welfare , and any issues within the fire service in Victoria. Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you. Thank you all very much. We understand it can be challenging to share personal journeys , but we really do appreciate it . It helps the committee in our work. Just a couple of quick ones from me and I'm picking up from something you said , Mr Fusca. Y ou said it was better than it was 20 years ago. My impression is that probably a generation ago the view was that stoicism was it: you just got on with the job. You said things have improved . I s that the general view of those on the panel ? Are we doing things better than we did 20 years ago ? Have we actually made things better for young people coming into first responding roles in our ability to respond but also the preparation they're getting ?

Mr Fusca : I'm happy to go first. When I was a welfare officer in the Australian Federal Police back in the late nineties it was a token effort. I was there because it was a tick in the box. Accompanying that portfolio were a number of other issues that I had to address which were ticks in the box so that the AFP could say that they had a particular person addressing those issues. Sadly, after I went back into operational work there were a number of welfare officers but, due to a shift in interest or maybe a budgetary restraint, they actually removed all welfare officers from the regions. They've now re-engaged them after two unfortunate suicides in the Melbourne office in most recent times, so now the AFP has brought on welfare officers.

With the fire service, what I remember of back then is that it was a token effort. There was a stigma attached to identifying with mental illness. You're right: you would inhibit your opportunity for promotion. People would look at you differently, and there was huge stigma attached to it. In 2018 there's still a problem, but it's no longer a tick in the box. The UFU has legitimately put on a welfare officer—it just happens to be me—for all the right reasons. The information I've got from the operational firefighters is that, prior to the appointment of a UFU welfare officer in 2016, it looked like they were ticks in the box. But we've been able to generate some interest in legitimate wellbeing for firefighters in Victoria. And the MFB and CFA are doing some marvellous things here. It's no longer a tick in the box; they're very serious about it.

The problem now is that we need to educate all our operational firefighters and all first responders that there is a legitimate concern by the employer. The stigma attached to it needs to be removed. It's hard for an individual to put their hand up and say, 'I want to be exposed to stigma.' We allow ourselves to be exposed to fear and happiness and a lot of other emotions, but to put your hand up and say, 'Yes, I want to be exposed to stigma and harassment by a perception that I can't do my job'—that's where we need to educate everybody as well as managers of people. The MFB and the CFA are currently undertaking some courses, which I've been invited to attend—Road to Mental Readiness and Mental Health First Aid. These are going to spread right across the workforce, and I'm hoping that will be the next step in breaking down that stigma and getting more people to engage in conversation.

ACTING CHAIR: Mr Kirwan and Mr Jones, did you have anything to add in that area?

Mr Kirwan : It is better now than it was before. I think one of the biggest issues that there is is that any actions you take today to reduce the impact that the job has on the employees' mental health is not observable for a significant period of time in most cases. If you have decisions being made by officers of varying levels that are directly affecting their budget today but the outcomes of that budgetary decision aren't going to be seen for 20 years or 10 years or, in some cases, two years, that officer is no longer going to be in that position, so there's less of a reason for those people to make high-cost decisions rather than cheaper, maybe not so efficient decisions.

Mr Jones : The service I work for has done some significant work. We're into the eighth year of an initial three-year mental health strategy, and we're now implementing our fifth year of our five-year strategy. We've made some significant inroads, but it's firefighters supporting firefighters. As I put in our submission, when we try and seek help from EAPs we go to the vanilla EAP that provides support to everybody within the government that I work for, with no particular individual support for first responders. What we do is different, and I think we need to provide support that recognises what we do.

I was interested to listen to New South Wales Ambulance colleagues. The examples they provided of the EAP are exactly the same thing we see in our jurisdiction. We spend a lot of time, initially, explaining to trained psychologists what we do—and then supporting them when they can't cope with what we do. Something needs to change.

ACTING CHAIR: How much evidence is there, from your perspectives, of how much more we can do, in terms of up-front resilience training? Is that something we have good evidence on, from your perspectives?

Mr Kirwan : I think there is. I submitted a paper to my organisation about eight years ago—I titled it, 'Quality training and a reduction in the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder'—and there is evidence around the world that says realistic evidence based training, scenario based training, is a better moderator of mental illness in staff than post-incident counselling. The problem is that's expensive. You're talking to Professor Harvey a little bit later today. He's done some amazing work with fire and rescue on training our middle managers and things like that, but there doesn't seem to be as much research into the preconditioning of first responders to give them the controls for what they're going to be exposed to. And, I think, without that side of the research as well we're never going to get a whole picture.

ACTING CHAIR: Mr Jones, you talked about the difficulty of dealing with PM&C over adequate recognition for those who have, I guess, demonstrated a significant contribution to society. Can you just talk me through that issue and what the problem is there?

Mr Jones : I've given some additional papers, in relation to the work that I've been doing since 2014 with PM&C, and I've detailed and documented the number of contacts I've made with that department. I think I'm up to my fifth contact officer now in the department. Basically, I start the entire process again every time I get a new contact officer. Probably the most telling one for me is the second page, where, two years into the process—

ACTING CHAIR: Hold on a moment. Is the committee happy to accept those? Yes. Go ahead.

Mr Jones : of trying to get appropriate recognition I got a letter from the department saying that the process had been put on hold because the government was in caretaker mode.

ACTING CHAIR: When was that?

Mr Jones : Two years ago.

ACTING CHAIR: And you've heard nothing since?

Mr Jones : I've had a number of emails since saying that they're still looking at the issue. In my latest email, from last week, which I've attached, I asked for some information so I could provide it to you today. They said they've got nothing for me. It's been a process that has astounded me, that I've had such difficulty in getting an outcome.

ACTING CHAIR: I'm happy to take this onboard and try to get an outcome for you. I just find that hard to believe, but leave that one.

Senator URQUHART: I'm happy to come with you.

ACTING CHAIR: Okay.

Mr Jones : Thank you. I might leave it at that and not say anything else. Another example is the teams that deployed to the Christchurch earthquake. We work under a United Nations regulation which says that we will provide support to an external country through a period of 10 days. When we tried to get recognition for the staff who went to Christchurch and to the Japan tsunami, the criteria for the deployment was set by PM&C as 14 days. It was just astounding. We work under a United Nations regulation, that we're a signatory to, that says we'll support overseas people for 10 days. Yet the criteria set by PM&C for that deployment was 14 days, which meant that no-one who responded to those incidents would have been eligible for any recognition from the government. It took us quite some time to get that finding of PM&C changed, and the process we went through was very stressful.

An example is the National Emergency Medal. The jurisdiction I worked for sent a large number of people to Victoria. Every permanent firefighter was not recognised with the National Emergency Medal because they were paid staff and had a different criteria. Every volunteer who was working on exactly the same fire truck in exactly the same uniform doing exactly the same work, because they volunteered to go, was awarded the National Emergency Medal. That's a process, since 2009, which we've not been able to change. We have a vast number of permanent paid staff who have never been recognised for their efforts in Victorian bushfires, yet volunteers who, mind you, were given paid emergency leave from their employees—so they were paid to do the same thing—were all recognised. The process of recognition is astounding and disconnected from reality.

Senator PATRICK: Mr Kirwan, thank you for attending. I think it's really important that you've come out and said some of the things you're saying—that's great. I was a bit disturbed when you talked in your submission about insurance companies pursuing people who've been found to have a mental illness. You mention two. Is that the only incident you've seen of that?

Mr Kirwan : No. I'm also a peer support officer with Fire and Rescue NSW, and I was attending a peer support conference where EML were presenting as well. They had recently been the subject of a Four Corners investigation into targeting police officers with mental illness claims. I put it to them because, out of two colleagues who I know really well, one had 400 pages of surveillance photos sent to him asking, 'Why aren't you at work? You were quite capable of picking your child up from school.' When I put it to EML on the day, I asked, 'Are you targeting firefighters in the same way as was portrayed by Four Corners?' They said, 'No.' As it turns out, that was because they don't recognise them as firefighters anymore. So guys with 30 years experience who are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder which is accepted by the insurance company are not seen as firefighters, and therefore they're more than happy to say, 'No, we're not targeting firefighters for their insurance claims.'

Senator PATRICK: So you think this is quite widespread—that someone gets a compensation claim and are then pursued?

Mr Kirwan : Yes, to the point where some were asking: 'We know of another ex-firefighter who's driving a bus now, and he's quite happy with it. Why don't you drive a bus?' Don't get me wrong, I don't think that everyone is above reproach; there may be some people not necessarily doing the right thing. But post-traumatic stress disorder leads to things where you're more aware of your surroundings and what's going on, and then you have someone sitting in a van out the front of your children's school taking photos of you picking them up, which I don't necessarily think is helping those people lead a meaningful life again. They have no support. Once they leave, they don't have anyone from the organisation supporting them, and they don't have anyone outside the organisation supporting them, and that's why I said there needs to be someone independent, almost like an ombudsman.

Senator PATRICK: I don't think we've heard any evidence in relation to this, have we, Senator Urquhart?

Senator URQUHART: We've had quite damning evidence in relation to insurance companies. We are, in the Canberra hearing, getting a number of insurance companies to come along, so I'd be interested to know who the different insurers are so that we can actually invite them. Whether they'll come or not is another issue. They might be like NSW Ambulance and run from it!

Mr Kirwan : I'm more than happy to provide that and the names of a couple of colleagues who have been subject to that level of surveillance. Obviously I'll provide them confidentially.

Senator PATRICK: Sure. Thank you for that. I'm mindful of time, so I might switch to Mr Jones. You said in your submission that, for every responder who supports recognition, there's one who doesn't. Is that across the board? Are management coming around to the idea that this is a real problem and it needs to be addressed properly? I ask that because, a lot of the time, this is a cultural thing that needs to come from the top. This one and two—is that right throughout the entire hierarchy down to junior people?

Mr Jones : I'll give you my experience. My experience is that some people hide from recognition and don't want recognition; they just want to be able to do their job. However, I've seen both sides of the street. I've seen the people like the Balfour family, who felt the recognition they were provided for Mr Balfour was significant and assisted them in their healing process, and I've seen other firefighters I work with who want nothing to do with recognition. I can't explain why both camps feel the way they do, but it's a really vexed issue. What's the right level of recognition and how do you recognise what people do? For me, I think our nation needs to recognise what we do. There's a lot of jurisdictional recognition for what we do, but nationally I don't think we have it right yet.

Senator PATRICK: You're clearly wearing a fireman's uniform, and I think you're a fairly senior officer.

Mr Jones : Correct.

Senator PATRICK: You're now, in some sense, in a privileged position to see how senior management is working. This goes back to Senator Brockman's question about whether or not you see a change at your level amongst your senior colleagues.

Mr Jones : To give you some context, I'm essentially the 2IC of my organisation and spend a considerable amount of time acting as the chief officer of my organisation. I'll be really blunt with you: I couldn't have attended today if I didn't come in uniform. I couldn't have stepped up and spoken to you without the protection that I feel from putting my uniform on. I've been through a similar journey as Peter. We know each other quite well.

Senator PATRICK: Sorry, can you explain that a little bit more. I don't actually understand the link with the uniform. Is that an organisational issue or a personal one?

Mr Jones : It's a bit of both. I feel empowered to talk to you and to provide the input that I do when I wear my uniform. When I take this uniform off, I just like to be Pat from the suburbs of Canberra who mixes in with everybody else. I find it very hard to speak in public and get my message across. I'm not sure if I'm explaining myself that well but I feel that, without putting the uniform on, I'd find it very difficult to have this discussion with you today.

Senator PATRICK: I'll leave it there. I do note you are carrying a number of medals and some from, I presume, your father as well.

Mr Jones : These are territory recognition on my right side and national recognition on the left-hand side.

Senator PATRICK: I thank you for your service.

Mr Jones : Thank you.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you all for coming along. I'll start with you, Mr Jones, in relation to a number of things. You talked about the recognition of the medals. I'm not part of the government, but I do apologise for the debacle that you've had to go through to try and get some feedback. I'll work with Senator Brockman to try and see if we can get some response on that. You talked about what it meant to the families of firefighters to actually have that recognition of those who lost their lives in the line of duty. Can you talk a little bit more about just what that feels like and how important that is for not only you, probably, but also the families.

Mr Jones : Thank you for that. I've been a driving force in getting the National Emergency Services Memorial—and the roll of honour—established in Canberra. That was unveiled in May this year. The names of in excess of 500 firefighters who have lost their lives in a line of duty are mentioned on that wall. I have a couple of really good friends on that wall but I also have my father's cousin on that wall. He was killed in a major fire in Armadale back in the 1930s. His name is on that wall, and that was very special to me.

As part of that process the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council developed a medallion process. Every year we present, on behalf of our peers, an engraved medallion to the family of our peers, recognising that the family has suffered a major sacrifice. Just watching the families who receive the medallions is heart wrenching. You see the toll that it takes on them. You see a young kid get a medallion from the president of AFAC or the president of our organisation and clutch it to their heart. That's something we're doing as firefighters for firefighters, but our country is not doing it. We're doing that to look after each other.

In conjunction with that, I think our country should be providing some small token to those families to say, 'This is what our country believes that you've done and the sacrifice that you've provided.' When David died we tried to get recognition. I'm happy to provide you with some of the documents we got back. It was appalling. We had senators writing to us saying: 'Why don't you just give them a laurel wreath or provide them with a spring of wattle? There's no recognition that we can provide you from the country.' It's sad that as a country we're allowing these men and women to give their lives and we provide nothing back to their families.

Senator URQUHART: In this inquiry I'd like to know more about the role of the federal government and the overseeing role, if there is one. We know that each jurisdiction has a different body that they look after. We've done quite a number of hearings around the country now. My observation from these hearings is that the fire service does it better than other services, but it sounds like there's still a bit of a way to go or a long way to go. They certainly do it better. In Victoria the Victorian government has talked about the presumptive legislation for PTSD for first responders. We have got other jurisdictions too. I think Western Australian fireys have put that in. It's not part of law, but it is a relationship that the fire service has with the insurer. I think that goes a long way to dealing with it.

I'd like to hear from all of you about what sort of a role you think the Commonwealth should play in collaboration. It seems like there are bodies that talk to one another, but it's a talkfest and they don't seem to want to share or swap information about the benefits of what they're doing and how well it's working. We actually had Canadian firefighters at one of our hearings in Brisbane. They seem to be smashing it much better than everyone else. Why don't we pick up what they're doing and deal with it? I don't know whether anyone can explain that to me.

Mr Jones : I've worked for the federal government. I've worked for Emergency Management Australia, I've worked for the ACT government and I've worked as a firefighter. My observations as a very lowly person in the Commonwealth government are that someone needs to take responsibility. There needs to be a minister responsible for emergency services across the country who steps up and goes: 'I'll give you some ownership of what you do and I'll be the person who provides the conduit back into the government. I'll be your ally and your buddy.' I think we need someone at that level to be our champion.

Mr Kirwan : AFAC is the peak industry body for fire and emergency service authorities throughout the nation. I've never been there, but I just don't see the research coming back out either. I think the research needs to come from a federal level. I was successful in winning a Churchill Fellowship and got to go to Norway. One thing the Norwegian Air Ambulance does is offer paid PhD positions. There are two per year over a two-year period.

ACTING CHAIR: Who offers those?

Mr Kirwan : The Norwegian Air Ambulance. If you are doing a PhD on anything to do with their business—anything from HR to avionics or medicine—you can apply and do your PhD. That's driving innovation, research and a change in culture. We don't have anything like that. We're all state government departments or federal government departments. We don't have a budget that's going to allow us to put on an $80,000 or $50,000 dollar PhD student, which can start driving some of those research things. From a federal government perspective, maybe there needs to be a bit more of a think tank, or attach it to one of the federal science agencies or something like that to generate research on other aspects, not just the post-incident stuff. Let's start looking at the pre-incident, the conditioning, the selection of staff and all those types of things.

Mr Jones : I'm also a Churchill Fellow. I'm very proud of it and very proud of what we achieve. The Balfour family, after David's death, came to me and said, 'How can we pay back the fire service and the country that looked after us so well after David died?' We negotiated with the Churchill trust that part of David's estate—we funded a Churchill fellowship. Through that process, just in the ACT, we send firefighters overseas to study and bring back what they see around the world. The funding that the family supported is going to run out very soon. There needs to be some sort of process where we do a similar thing to what Peter has suggested, where we fund people to go and see what the best practice is and then bring that best practice back. But we don't have a champion, like I said earlier.

Mr Fusca : I agree with both of the previous speakers. It's great that this inquiry is up and running. Clearly, the Commonwealth saw the need for it, and there is a need. If there were a champion, be it a minister in a particular portfolio federally, that could shine the light and have some continuity with what comes out of this inquiry so that it filters out to all the states and territories. I know there has always been an issue with federal levels and state levels and how they interact about ideas, but if there were a Commonwealth body that looked at the first responders—look, first responders in the Commonwealth of Australia, including all the states and territories, obviously, provide an absolutely amazing community service. Some of the stories you've probably heard about the way they've been treated and how they've ended up—it's a real breakdown in the system. If there were one body federally that had some uniformity and was a bit of a watchdog, I would welcome that.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you for that. One of the things we've heard about, and I think someone mentioned it—Mr Kirwan, I think it was you who talked about speaking out and getting the support and the dollars to be able to do that.

Mr Kirwan : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: One of the things I've looked at through this inquiry has been: yes, things do cost money, and it might cost money to put somebody in charge of something, but, at the end of the day, how much do we save by not having broken people and people who take their own lives? To me, there's no comparison in terms of that. That leads me to ask you—and I'll throw it out to the panel—in terms of, first of all, getting people to talk about it. Mr Kirwan your example of how you talked to that group of firefighters was really good, but I don't think that happens enough. One of the things that I hope this inquiry would do would be to get people to talk about it. It has, but not enough as far as I'm concerned. We had a witness who attended the Victorian hearing. It was in the command centre. She suffered from PTSD for about five years. She sent me an email after the inquiry and said she felt like she'd been to a therapy session just by coming along, sharing her story and actually being able to talk about it. I think talking about it and not having that stigma is probably the first step.

I think the other issue is PTSD, the legislation and workers compensation—how destructive it is, because it is a combative system. I, like Senator Lines, was a union official for 23 years and had to fight regularly for my members in workers compensation jurisdictions, and it was combative. If you had a physical injury, you generally ended up with a mental injury as a result of the workers comp system. When you've got a mental injury to start with, it exacerbates that system, and people don't want to even get on that roundabout, as I used to call it, because it's just too hard. Can you just talk me through that system, as you may have experienced it or not experienced, because you chose not to, and how you think that could be better dealt with?

Mr Kirwan : I was quite lucky. When I had my breakdown at work, I messaged two people: one was, at the time, the assistant director of health and safety of fire and rescue and the other one was a colleague, and he got to me first. He rang me and said: 'Can I get the assistant director to talk to you? Will you take a call?' I spoke to her for about two hours. I was still at work. I was in that fight or flight mode. I was extremely agitated. I was crying. In the end, she said to go home. I sort of snuck back into work to grab my stuff and get out. I was in no fit state to drive, so I pulled over and I was talking to a friend. After talking to him, probably for an hour, I was in a position to start driving home. I was talking to him the whole way home. By the time I got home, I said to him: 'Right, I'm home now. I'm safe,' and hung up. I had eight messages from the assistant director, and the first one was: 'Hey, Pete, just checking you're okay. How are you going?' By the eighth, there was this fear in her voice that I've never ever heard in anyone's voice. She was certain that I'd killed myself. I obviously rang her straight back and let her know. I think I had someone in my corner that understood, that was empathetic and that was supportive. She said, 'Have tomorrow off.' She gave me a day off and then brought me back into the office on the Friday into head office, and I spent the next 10 months working in our health and safety directorate.

My first two psychologists were EAP providers, and they were dreadful. One made me feel like it was my fault. So they sent me to another psychologist. There was never a question about cost. I was in a really, really supportive environment at work, and then I had a really good psychologist. For me, because I had someone in my corner, the insurance side of it wasn't as bad, but you still feel that you are a malingerer. You know, it's the insurance company. I understand they have a job to do, but you're trying to do a job on people that aren't in a fit state to be treated like that. You get your psychologist and your psychiatrist to write reports, and then they're saying, 'Well, we don't agree with that,' so you've got to go to this psychiatrist, and then they don't necessarily like that outcome, so they send you to another one. I was probably quite lucky because I had a really supportive environment to work in.

Mr Jones : I've assisted a lot of people through the process of workers compensation claims and seen a lot of the staff that work for me in really bad places. If you're not sick before you start the process, you'll definitely be sick when you get out the other end. I made a really conscious decision. I, like Peter, had a breakdown after the 2009 fires and after the Christchurch earthquake. I couldn't function as a human being. I was diagnosed by my psychologist with PTSD. She asked me to go through the process with the psychiatrist of a formal diagnosis. I made the decision that I needed to fix myself, and I didn't put in a claim. There are two people sitting in this room who assisted me. I don't think I could go through the process, because it would have ended my career. It would have ended everything that I worked for 30 years to try and achieve. I've got 16 months until I can retire, and then I'll start looking after me.

Senator URQUHART: What do we do to combat that system? You said it would end your career, and I think that's one of the things that we've heard about this, that it's career ending. People choose to be a firey, an ambo, a policeman or whatever, and that's what they want to do with the rest of their lives. They don't want to then become broken, so they persist to a point where they just can't cope anymore and sometimes take their own lives or whatever. What do we need to do to overcome that system of people not wanting to go into there and get help?

Mr Jones : For me, what I do as a firefighter defines me. I don't know what I'm going to do when I retire in 16 months—I really don't know. There's no process or system or anything that employs second-hand, broken down firefighters or paramedics. What do I do? I can't go to another jurisdiction's fire service and work there. I've made a really conscious career decision, putting 30 years into becoming the best firefighter that I can be for the territory that I work for. But when that ends, there's nothing at the other end; there's nothing at the end of the tunnel.

Senator URQUHART: So there's no support for first responders into retirement?

Mr Jones : Nothing.

Senator URQUHART: Is that something that we should look at dealing with?

Mr Jones : Not just retirement but the transition into retirement. I've got 30 years worth of skills that I could provide to another organisation. I just don't know how to get there or what to do to get there. I'll take the uniform off. On one hand, I'm thinking, 'I'm really looking forward to that day'; on the other hand, I'm absolutely dreading what I'm going to do when I don't put that uniform on.

Senator LINES: Thank you for coming today to this inquiry. I have a quick question, following up on what Senator Urquhart said. I guess what I've seen, as Anne said, as a union official is that interface between a worker who's injured and the insurance companies and the legislation, which does actually encourage people back to work. In terms of the mental health stuff, how do we make that better? Mr Jones, you've said you chose not to go down that path, and you wouldn't be the first worker that made that decision. Mr Kirwan, you said yours was rare because you had this support. It is your right to use the worker's comp system; it's your right as workers, so how do we make it better?

Mr Kirwan : Having spoken to people, I think one way is through an independent ombudsman or someone along those lines—someone who is an advocate and who's not financially involved, because both the insurance company and the organisations have a financial interest in getting that worker back to work. So an ombudsman would be one. I think the other problem is that, in all of our first responder organisations, a large percentage of who we promote comes from within the ranks, so there's some cultural baggage that might come along with that as well. And I think, by turning around and saying that—Pat started as a recruit firefighter and worked through the ranks; his experience, in a management sense, is purely based on firefighting. While some people have the emotional intelligence to see their failings and learn and grow, others don't necessarily see their failings and grow. So you're entrenching poor management practices, and I don't think any—

Senator LINES: It's a bit like promoting good classroom teachers to principals; they're different jobs.

Mr Kirwan : Yes, it doesn't mean you're a good principal. You can still be a good classroom teacher.

Mr Fusca : If I could add—from having gone through my own experiences and now assisting firefighters in Victoria with their work claim experiences, I think the answer is, as well as having that champion that overseas first responders in Australia, to seriously look at presumptive legislation throughout Australia. There's irrefutable evidence that, among first responders who are continually exposed to trauma, there will be a high percentage that will develop post-traumatic stress. There's no question about that; the proof's there. As one of the previous speakers I was listening to from ambulance said, it might be an insignificant event in the workplace that tips you over the edge. When you're diagnosed with a particular illness, such as post-traumatic stress or a particular type of cancer because of exposure to toxins, if you have that presumptive legislation where there's no argument, you don't have to continually relive your claim to change people's minds and justify why you're sick. Presumptive legislation, streamlining the processes and having a better return-to-work policy are going to make it easier, as far as I'm concerned.

ACTING CHAIR: We are just about out of time. A final question from me—you don't want to experiment on people, but you do want organisations to try new things. How much trying of new things is happening within our emergency services? For example, I read an article not long back saying that PTSD can perhaps be moderated if, immediately after a traumatic incident, people are encouraged to play visually interactive video games. Are we trying things like this to see if they can work in any situation? Are we getting the data, the feedback—are we collecting the information to see what does work?

Mr Kirwan : I'll start on that. I wrote my story when I was seeing my psychologist, and the Black Dog Institute turned it into a video, which is now on YouTube; it's been watched over 180,000 times. That was part of a research project done by Professor Harvey—who's talking later—the University of New South Wales and Fire and Rescue on training our middle managers to be able to pick the phone up and ring a worker who's off, and that's absolutely empirical, peer-reviewed research. So there is some stuff happening, but I think we're just fortunate that our office is near the university and the Black Dog Institute. I don't think necessarily—

ACTING CHAIR: That it's happening in a systemic fashion?

Mr Kirwan : Yes. I don't think it's a broadbrush approach. There are a whole pile of people out there looking for PhDs to do or topics to cover, and maybe first responder mental health is not jumping into the forefront of their mind either.

Mr Fusca : I have nothing to support what happens afterwards, other than what I do myself. I advocate: let's start a conversation. And that's what I do.

Mr Jones : I think we need to go back to the past. When I joined in 1988 a lot of our firefighters, police and I think air traffic controllers as well were given a life span on their careers, which was around 20 years, and then we were supported to leave and find other work. Those systems don't exist anymore. We've got firefighters with 30, 40 years service now who probably should've left the organisations 20 years ago and provided something more to the community. But we don't have anywhere to go once we leave, so we stay and we're compounding the problem. A firefighter who's seen 40 years worth of things that we see probably isn't adding any value to anything that we do, but we've got nowhere else to go.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you very much for being here today. We really do appreciate it. We will now suspended for 15 minutes.

Pr oceedings suspended from 10:42 to 11:01