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Education and Employment References Committee
Mental health conditions experienced by first responders, emergency service workers and volunteers

ATKINS, Mr Robert, State President, Tasmanian Volunteer Fire Brigades Association

SUHR, Mr Lyndsay, State Fire Commission Representative, Tasmanian Volunteer Fire Brigades Association


ACTING CHAIR: I now welcome representatives from the Tasmanian Volunteer Fire Brigades Association to the table. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. I now invite each of you to make a short opening statement and, at the conclusion of your remarks, I'll invite members of the committee to ask questions. Do you have an opening statement that you'd like to proceed with?

Mr Atkins : We haven't got a written statement. It will be a verbal one.

ACTING CHAIR: That's absolutely fine.

Mr Atkins : In the last couple of days, we've been trying to think how we can sort of fit into this. I know we put our hand up, but listening to the previous speaker—

Senator O'NEILL: We know you'd respond if we on fire, Mr Atkins!

Mr Atkins : In a month's time, I will have been part of the Tasmania Fire Service for 50 years. I have seen a lot of changes over time. Back 20 years ago, we never even thought of mental health and what it did to affect people. Because we're volunteers out in the rural type area, we attend any type of incident, whether it's bushfire, MVAs or RCRs. We help people and do whatever. We don't know what we're going to go to once we get the call.

ACTING CHAIR: I know a MVA is a motor vehicle accident. What's an RCR?

Mr Atkins : A road crash rescue. That's worse than a MVA. Because of our location, we're probably the first on the scene. Because it's in your local area, the mind starts ticking when the pager goes off until when you get there. You think, 'Is it someone I know locally?' Mentally, it's doing that and probably some other words that I probably normally say on the farm but I won't say here today.It is all the things that we go through.

I think it's managing your people if you're the officer in charge. Managing your people, knowing what your people are capable of when you get there and that sort of thing. The lifestyle is making pressure more now than it was 30 years ago. It was more relaxed. Because of the training we have to do, there's more pressure on that to cover what we attend. It's the same with a bushfire. You see the smoke from it, you drive over the hill and it's going hell for leather. There's what's going through your mind so you're prepared to do whatever.

Mr Suhr : I can only agree with what Robert has said. Mental health and exposure to these problems was not recognised some years ago. As time has gone by, it's now recognisable. But there's a lot of work to be done as to how we recognise symptoms in the field.

ACTING CHAIR: I might just kick off with a couple questions and then hand on to others. What procedures or processes are there to help volunteer firefighters if they have been to a traumatic incident?

Mr Atkins : Probably 15 years or 20 years ago, we had a project called CISM, which I think was called the Critical Incident Stress Management Program. That is still running. There's another one up and running now called Converge, which I think mostly does the same thing. I know after three or four incidents I've been to, I've had CISM ring me. They're excellent people to deal with. They'll talk to you for half an hour about nothing, but they're doing their job. That sort of fixes our problem to a degree. I went to an incident probably 15 years ago. If I think hard about it, I still see that person lying there. You've got to close it out. It's still there, it just depends on how far you pull the blind up. That was a neighbour who I'd worked with for years. There's that.

I noticed the Tasmania Fire Service, done through funding for mental health, are getting right into it at the moment. As a brigade chief, you've got to recognise the limitations of your members. I know there are one or two members up my way that are good at driving a vehicle when going to MVAs or something like that, and that's where they stop. We get to know our members and what they're capable of, so you don't exposure them to whatever. Even through our communications system now, they get a notification that things aren't good. You're told before you go. You can stop at home if you want to or you can go. The choice is entirely up to you.

ACTING CHAIR: How does that work with rostering and having someone attend if people—

Mr Suhr : We don't really have rostering. It's whose available.

ACTING CHAIR: You don't. You just send out the page or the phone call and whoever can attend then attends?

Mr Atkins : Yes. As you say, we are volunteers. A lot of people work at jobs that are probably half an hour away from where their brigade is. As I say, I'm a semiretired farmer. I can drop and run. Other people are working on wages for other people and the boss says, 'No, you are working for me,' so you stop. If we allow for that—

Senator O'NEILL: So you have enough people rostered on and you've created a culture where you say to people, 'If you think you don't want to come to this one, don't come,' and you're confident you are going to have enough people turn out anyway. Is that how it works?

Mr Atkins : Yes and no. It is in your own brigade, but the system is set up now that, if you call Fire Comm, which is our comms system, and say, 'We haven't got quite enough people to turn out,' they've got a backup system where they'll call a neighbouring brigade.

Senator O'NEILL: So there's a little bit of flexibility there.

Mr Atkins : There's quite a bit of flexibility. Because we are all volunteers, we don't know what we're doing on the day. I'm up on the north-west coast. That's where I live. I'm in Hobart today, so if my pager goes off—I'll worry about that when that happens.

Mr Suhr : I think the biggest thing is the unknown. If you get a call to an incident, whether it be a bushfire, scrub fire, house fire, motor vehicle accident or entrapment, and you're the first responder, you don't know what you're going to be involved in until you actually get there because no-one can give you any more information. As Robert said, once someone arrives, the information flows back where you can keep those people away if you believe they are under some sort of trauma, but it's about the first lot there. They are the ones it affects.

Senator URQUHART: How many volunteers are there in the fire service around the state, do you know? It doesn't have to be—

Mr Atkins : They say 5,000. I reckon 4,500 would probably be a better figure.

Senator URQUHART: What's the process for attracting new recruits? How does that happen? Does the Tasmania Fire Service play a role there or do you as volunteers do that?

Mr Suhr : Mainly it's volunteers. People come forward, particularly after a big event. After a big bushfire, they come out of the woodwork everywhere. Whilst there are recruitment drives, they are very limited. Most of the volunteers want to give their time and so they make arrangements to go to a station, maybe through the Tasmania Fire Service or maybe they go directly to the nearest brigade.

Senator URQUHART: Is there a screening process for volunteers or do you just basically say: 'Come on in. We're happy to have you'?

Mr Suhr : There is a screening process, but there's not a screening process for mental health.

Senator URQUHART: So it's about the physical ability to do it and to—

Mr Suhr : Yes, and their ability to—

Senator URQUHART: work as a team.

Mr Atkins : You probably sort that out when they first come on and you get talking to them. You say, 'You've got to do this, this and this.' Then they might come and say, 'I'm not real keen on doing that little bit,' and so then you start thinking, 'What is going on here?' You sort that out. There are plenty of jobs within a fire brigade that people can do without riding the truck or driving the truck. So you've got to be adaptable.

Senator URQUHART: Your members also work alongside paid officers, I assume, in some areas.

Mr Atkins : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: In Ulverstone it's purely voluntary, but if there's an event then officers from Devonport or Burnie might get called in to assist with that process. Is it a regular thing that you work alongside paid firefighters?

Mr Atkins : For structural fires there are specific turnouts. Devonport, as you said, backs up Ulverstone to the Leven River. On the western side of the Leven River, Burnie comes in. That's all set up in processing. Our Fire Comm know if there is a fire on the western side they press two buttons and they will turn out.

Mr Suhr : It doesn't apply everywhere. That applies mainly around the built-up areas, the cities. As soon as you get away from that volunteers are on their own until it becomes a very large incident. Then it escalates and then career people will be brought on.

Senator URQUHART: Can you tell me what mental health support is offered by Tasmania Fire Service to the volunteers. Is there any and what is it?

Mr Suhr : Exactly what Robert said earlier—CISM.

Senator URQUHART: I want to take you up on CISM. You talked about the fact that they talk about nothing for about half an hour because they're doing their job. Is that beneficial? Do you get an advantage out of that or is there something else that needs to be done? What else needs to be done?

Mr Atkins : Take the incident. They ended up talking to me and never said anything about the incident. When they were talking to me, how I answered those questions and how I put thought into it, they thought, 'Yeah, his mind's pretty good.' They'd do that, as I say, on the first call. The next day, they'd ring up, say 'How are you going?', that sort of thing, and away we'd go. I assumed, by the way they were talking to me and the way I answered them back, that they knew how my mind was ticking. A lot of the questions were about farming, and then they'd ask something like, 'What did you hear on the news?' I presume they knew what to get out of that rather than actually talking about the incident. Everyone I've heard has been the same, and very happy with what's come out of it.

Senator URQUHART: So you think there's enough support there for volunteers?

Mr Atkins : I think, if the volunteers let it be known they've got issues, the support is there. There's CISM and there's Converge.

Senator URQUHART: Is that a barrier, that they don't let it be known that there are issues?

Mr Atkins : It's probably up to the officers to recognise it.

Mr Suhr : Like most people, they don't want to admit that there's something wrong and it's up to someone to try and pick it up. That's the difficult part.

Senator URQUHART: How do you think that could be measured and resolved within the volunteer fire service?

Mr Suhr : Only by training people to identify that there is a problem there. Again, you probably only get that through informal discussions.

Senator URQUHART: And they don't happen at the moment?

Mr Suhr : Nothing's structured in any way, no. It's only if someone puts their hand up. If you have been through a stressful situation, then you would automatically—

Senator URQUHART: Get followed up.

Mr Suhr : get asked about assistance before anyone else.

Mr Atkins : I think it's up to each brigade to identify it before it gets that far. Even out in the fireground, you can identify when people are starting to get stressed out or it's starting to get to them. In big incidents now, you put a brigade in for two hours and they bash their back ends off. Then you pull them out, sit them down and say, 'It's drink and food time', relax for a quarter of an hour and then they'll go back in again. You've got to look at the person to see how they're handling it. If you see that they're starting to get a bit toey or wander off, you should say, 'Perhaps we should have a look at that person,' and pull them off the fireground for safety.

Mr Suhr : That goes back to educating people to identify if there is a problem.

Senator URQUHART: Are the officers in charge of the—I guess you call yourself, what, the fire chief when you're in a—

Mr Suhr : Brigade chief.

Senator URQUHART: Sorry; brigade chief. Are each of the brigade chiefs trained? Do they get enough training to be able to work through that process with the rest of the volunteers?

Mr Suhr : No, not really.

Senator URQUHART: So there's more that needs to be done.

Mr Suhr : It's a spur-of-the-moment thing, when someone realises there's a problem. That doesn't only apply to the brigade chiefs, because volunteers—the brigade chief, like Robert, who's here today—

Senator URQUHART: If he's not there.

Mr Suhr : It goes down the line, and the rank just keeps going down. It can be anyone in the brigade or in charge of the brigade.

Mr Atkins : Probably a better word would have been 'officer-in-charge', to take the brigade chief out of it. That covers—

Senator URQUHART: Whoever's in charge at that time?

Mr Atkins : Yes.

Senator URQUHART: Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: Senator Patrick, you're fine? Senator Duniam, you're fine? Senator O'Neill.

Senator O'NEILL: Yes. I thought I was going to defer to you guys.

ACTING CHAIR: No, they're fine. Senator Urquhart has asked their questions.

Senator O'NEILL: Great. One of the things that we look for when we're doing this is to try to find a system response. But the thing that strikes me about the evidence that you've given today, gentlemen, is that it's very much the duty of care of critical leaders at different levels of the organisation that actually matters, because you're talking about the discernment of a very sophisticated human interaction that's based on knowing somebody over a period of time in multiple contexts. To be able to have that level of discernment, you're operating at a very, very high level yourselves. We can't recommend that you create great people to do the job; that's not a recommendation we can make. We're going to rely on great people to step forward, and, like you, they're in our community. So that's great, and thank you. What system responses do we need to think about recommending that will generate better mental health outcomes for the people who are working as first responders? You see volunteers, but you also see paid people. Our job is to recommend something. You've got more experience in that context than I certainly have, and I just want to offer you the opportunity to put on the record what you think needs to happen to fix this problem that we know is here and is growing. Mr Suhr?

Mr Suhr : Education.

Senator O'NEILL: At every level.

Mr Suhr : At every level, right through the whole brigade, the whole system—volunteer, career—no matter who it is.

Senator O'NEILL: So that would be mental health first aid, mental health literacy and systems that demand, maybe, that mental health becomes part of the criteria of ongoing assessment.

Mr Suhr : Yes, and it's recognised at every call.

Senator O'NEILL: At every call.

Mr Suhr : Yes; it's raised somewhere. The message has got to get through that you've got to look for it every time.

Senator O'NEILL: Some people were talking about the bucket and the difference a critical incident can make. If you were perhaps to go to a neighbour, it would be a very different kind of critical incident for you than for somebody who was from out of district and was employed to do that job. They would have a different response. So it's not just about a critical incident. CISM rings because it's been identified as a critical incident. There needs to be some careful debrief every occasion, because that could be the one that pushes somebody over the edge, even though it doesn't look like it to anybody else.

Mr Suhr : Yes. It depends on level, of course. At a low-level incident, it's just a quick chat: 'Everyone okay. Everyone happy with it,' or something like that. That's where it should start, and then, as each incident increases, so should the level of—

Senator O'NEILL: support.

Mr Suhr : action.

Senator O'NEILL: Mr Atkins, did you want to say anything?

Mr Atkins : Yes. Mental health and all that is becoming a big thing, like a lot of other things at the moment. I think we said earlier that if we go back 30 years we never worried about it. You went up the paddock and kicked the post on the fence and hurt your toe and swore at it, and you were right. Nowadays, it's work related, it's family related. How can I put it? Thirty years ago you had more free time than you've got now. Everyone said, 'Oh, it's nice to get old; you'll be free.' But, as you get older, it gets less. I don't know whether it's because we get slower or what it is.

ACTING CHAIR: Time goes quicker!

Mr Atkins : Yes. I think that puts stress on it, so that probably relates to the mental side of it too.

Senator O'NEILL: It's not just the critical incidents that you're responding to that are stressors in people's lives. There are other multiple factors around it, like insecure employment, not being able to get the kids from child care, insecurity in relationships or not being sure about a whole lot of other things in life. All these things create their part of the bucket too, don't they?

Mr Atkins : Yes, that's right. You've got family at home; something has probably happened. So you're out fighting a fire and they're happening there. When I was in a family, it was a lot different from what it is now. So that adds to the mental side of it, because you've got more pressure on you to do it. Lifestyle has got a lot to do with it. It don't know how we fix that.

Senator O'NEILL: So you reckon we should make a recommendation about changing the lifestyles of Australians, Mr Atkins? Everybody should stress less.

Mr Atkins : Yes, I think we'd be better off if we did.

Senator O'NEILL: Maybe that education goes right back to schools, about balancing, self-care, self-talk and all that mental health education.

Mr Suhr : You should have that knowledge prior to anything happening, not afterward.

Senator O'NEILL: Good point, thank you.

Senator URQUHART: I don't know whether this might be an unfair question to ask you, but do you know the level or percentage of incidence of mental health conditions within the volunteer fire service or even the incidence of suicides within the volunteer fire service?

Mr Atkins : Once it goes CISM, as I said before, it becomes confidential information. In your own vicinity you'd know if something's wrong with someone, because you'd know what had happened.

Senator URQUHART: But not across the spectrum?

Mr Atkins : No, we never get that information.

Senator URQUHART: I know that a lot of volunteers, as you indicated, have other jobs and they might get called out from that job. Obviously that compounds with problems that they might face as a volunteer with an incident that they go to. They're not eligible, obviously, for workers compensation from the volunteer service because they're a volunteer. Do you know how many people have issues with maybe mental health conditions who are not able to return to their normal work because of what they've done through their volunteering?

Mr Suhr : The volunteer fire service is covered by workers compensation.

Senator URQUHART: It is? Right.

Mr Suhr : Via the Tas Fire Service.

Senator URQUHART: Great, so people are able to be covered.

Mr Suhr : They're classed as an employee.

Mr Atkins : Once their pager goes off they become a Tas Fire Service employee until the incident is finished.

Senator URQUHART: Do you know how high the incidence of your members claiming workers compensation would be? Are there any difficulties in them actually getting a workers comp claim resolved?

Mr Atkins : For mental health I don't know. I couldn't answer this truthfully. I don't think we get a lot in that at the moment. It's more physical damage for workers comp.

Mr Suhr : Again, you wouldn't hear it for mental health.

Senator URQUHART: And it may be because people don't talk about it. That's fine; it's probably an unfair question to ask you, but I just thought you may have known.

Mr Atkins : The only thing you know is if someone in your local brigade claimed. Outside that, you wouldn't know.

Senator PATRICK: As a supplementary to that, you don't know the level of incidence, but are you aware of any attempt made by the service to establish the level of incidence of mental health? Has any survey been done or any data collection been done by management that you're aware of?

Mr Atkins : I'm not aware of any, although they have got a new position there at the moment which might change that.

Senator PATRICK: But you might have expected, if a survey had been done, that you would have been surveyed, I presume.

Mr Atkins : Yes, we would have seen it.

Senator DUNIAM: You just mentioned a new position. What is that new position within the TFS?

Mr Suhr : It's a person employed to liaise with the volunteers.

Mr Atkins : It's in mental health—I just can't think of the right words.

Senator DUNIAM: Perhaps if you take it on notice.

Mr Atkins : He's got some funding for the next two or three years.

Senator DUNIAM: We can ask the Tasmania Fire Service later on today; they're appearing. Thank you.

ACTING CHAIR: Thank you, gentlemen, for appearing before us today. If there's anything else you'd like to let the committee know, please feel free to give us the information. Thank you.