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Supporting Volunteer Firefighter Well-Being: Lessons from the Australian “Black Summer” Bushfires

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 March 2022

Erin Smith*
Affiliation:
Edith Cowan University, School of Medical and Health Sciences, Joondalup, Perth, Western Australia DART Centre Asia Pacific, C/O Phoenix Australia Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health Carlton, Victoria, Australia
Lisa Holmes
Affiliation:
Edith Cowan University, School of Medical and Health Sciences, Joondalup, Perth, Western Australia
Brigid Larkin
Affiliation:
Edith Cowan University, School of Medical and Health Sciences, Joondalup, Perth, Western Australia
Brennen Mills
Affiliation:
Edith Cowan University, School of Medical and Health Sciences, Joondalup, Perth, Western Australia
Mark Dobson
Affiliation:
Fire and Rescue NSW, Sydney South, New South Wales, Australia
*
Correspondence: Associate Professor Erin Smith Edith Cowan University School of Medical and Health Sciences Joondalup, Perth, Western Australia CEO, DART Centre Asia Pacific C/O Phoenix Australia Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health Carlton, Victoria, Australia E-mail: Erin.Smith@dartaspac.org

Abstract

Introduction:

The 2019-2020 “Black Summer” bushfires in Australia focused the attention of the nation on the critical role that volunteer firefighters play in the response to such a disaster, spurring a national conversation about how to best support those on the frontline. The objective of this research was to explore the impact of the Black Summer bushfires on volunteer firefighter well-being and to investigate how to deliver effective well-being support.

Methods:

An explorative qualitative design underpinned by a phenomenological approach was applied. Participant recruitment followed a multi-modal sampling strategy and data were collected through semi-structured, in-depth interviews.

Results:

Qualitative data were collected from 58 participants aged from 23 to 61-years-of-age (average age of 46 years). All self-reported as volunteer firefighters who had responded to the Black Summer bushfires in Australia. Just over 80% of participants were male and the majority lived in the Australian states of New South Wales (65%) and Victoria (32%). All participants reported impact on their well-being, resulting from cumulative trauma exposure, responding to fires in local communities, intense work demands, minimal intervals between deployments, and disruption to primary employment. In regard to supporting well-being, four key themes emerged from data analysis: (1) Well-being support needs to be both proactive and reactive and empower local leaders to “reach in” while encouraging responders to “reach out;” (2) Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) should not be the only well-being support option available; (3) The sharing of lived experience is important; and (4) Support programs need to address self-stigmatization.

Conclusion:

Participants in this research identified that effective well-being support needs to be both proactive and reactive and holistic in approach.

Type
Research Report
Copyright
© The Author(s), 2022. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the World Association for Disaster and Emergency Medicine

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