Hidden horror: How our firefighters keep us safe at their own expense

Photograph courtesy of Metrpolitan Fire Brigade, Eastern Hill (2016)

It was 3.04am when the call came in. A house fire in Noble Park, Melbourne. Structure fully engulfed, suspected fatalities.

The Country Fire Authority (CFA) Noble Park Brigade sent two crews to the scene. Among them was 28-year-old Keith Pakenham, a keen photographer and electrical engineer by trade, but still a rookie when it came to fire calls.

It was Keith who discovered the three bodies — charred beyond recognition, huddled in the rubble that once resembled the master bedroom of their family home.

Almost 30 years on, Keith has attended over 8,000 incidents and is now a professional photographer with the CFA. But his eyes still water as he recalls the gruesome finding on his first major callout.

“You can never prepare yourself for these types of scenes, not through training anyway,” he says. “It was a massive wake up call for me.”

The three victims were a mother and her two young children, who had slept through their smoke alarm’s ring as the flames enveloped their suburban weatherboard home.

Keith later discovered they were the same age as his wife and two sons.

I didn’t sleep for a few nights after that,” he says, “but I soon realised this was simply the life of a firefighter.”

Firefighters are heralded as pillars of our society, fearlessly facing grave danger to protect our lives and properties. They are bound by a strong sense of responsibility and a fervent desire to keep their community safe.

But this comes at an immense personal cost.

Victorian fire services are facing a dramatic surge in the number of firefighters showing signs of depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Tragically they are also seeing an increase in the number taking their own lives each year.

WorkSafe Victoria statistics reported in The Age earlier this year reveal the number of insurance claims for mental health injuries has increased 25 per cent in five years for our emergency services. In 2015 alone, there were 305 claims lodged. Psychological injuries account for almost a quarter of all worker compensation claims from CFA, Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB), Victoria Police, Ambulance Victoria and the State Emergency Service (SES).

In the same article, WorkSafe Victoria’s Chief Executive Clare Amies said mental health problems were a serious issue in the emergency services, and had become a “top priority.”

The agonizing truth at the heart of our fire services is finally being brought to light, and the glowing heroics captured in news snippets by major media outlets seem increasingly detached from reality.

For many firefighters, particularly those in Melbourne’s growing urban fringe, most call outs are either to house fires or motor vehicle accidents.

Vic Roads figures show there are over 30,000 road accidents in Victoria each year, resulting in over 4,000 serious injuries. In 2015, TAC reported 252 fatalities.

Many people are unaware that the fire agencies attend these incidents. Often, these are more distressing than attending a simple structure fire or grassfire.

For Keith Pakenham, attending high-speed road accidents is one of the most challenging aspects of being a modern day firefighter. Keith has seen countless friends lose their composure after witnessing these scenes.

“You are forced to make very difficult decisions, decisions that have nothing to do with fighting fires, and they can be the difference between life and death,” he says.

“These decisions will weigh on your mind long after you return to the station.”

The blood and gore can also trigger a release of other pent up emotions.

“Road accidents are often the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Keith says. “Many of us can’t bear to see these horrific scenes play out time and time again.”

CFA firefighters attending a road accident in Dandenong, May 2016. Photograph by Keith Pakenham (CFA)

Back in the ‘old days’ (prior to the 1990s) the psychological aspects of firefighting were largely ignored. Firefighters would receive a pat on the back for their efforts, and if their hunched shoulders or glazed expressions indicated any form of psychological trauma they were simply told to ‘man up’.There was no formal debrief process back then.

Left largely to their own devices, some firefighters spoke about their experiences with family and friends, in an attempt to normalise their behaviour. Others would try to trivialise what they had seen and done.

“Sometimes we would joke a bit about what happened,” Keith recalls. “This sounds harsh, but we needed to get it out of our systems. We had to deal with it like any other job, and separate ourselves from the situation.”

These days both the CFA and MFB have a range of support services available to help members manage their mental health and deal with difficulties when they arise.

MFB spokeswoman Belle Nolan believes the MFB has made significant progress in this space during recent years.

“We now offer our firies a mix of internal and external counselling services,” Belle says. “We also have peer support, wellbeing checks, and chaplaincy and Critical Incident Stress (CIS) management services.”

The CIS management service aims to provide early intervention for firefighters who have experienced significant trauma. It seeks to support the natural recovery process and reduce the likelihood of firefighters experiencing PTSD in the future.

CFA spokesperson Angela Valente says CFA’s support services, which include the Member Assistance Program and the Heads Up Online Toolkit, are also gaining traction.

“All of the personal support services are offered to every CFA member whether they are career, volunteer or corporate staff,” she says. “The sessions are one-on-one, confidential and don’t cost any money.”

Angela also credits CFA’s proactive support for mental health awareness campaigns — such as World Mental Health Day, RU OK? and Men’s Health Week — in helping to generate further recognition, understanding and acceptance of mental health issues within the agency.

Despite progress in handling the day-to-day operational challenges for firefighters, the ongoing EBA industrial dispute and Fire Services Review released in March drew attention to broader cultural issues within both CFA and MFB.

Dr. Andrea Phelps, Deputy Director of the Phoenix Centre for Post-Traumatic Mental Health, told The Age in February that both organisational and operational factors can have an impact on people’s wellbeing, particularly in work environments that have “cumulative trauma over time.”

The Fire Services Review revealed evidence of a ‘bullying culture’ in both agencies, leading to conflict, low morale and poor behaviour. There is also a widening chasm between volunteer and career firefighters.

These organisational issues undoubtedly place further strain on the mental health of the firefighters.

The Victorian Government responded by launching an independent investigation through the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, which will commence later this month. CFA has also set up a taskforce to address the culture, diversity and inclusion concerns identified, as well as a hotline for their members to report bullying, harassment and other unacceptable behaviour.

“The hotline is open 24/7, and an external, independent team has been set up to manage the reports,” says Angela Valente. “We’re hoping this helps our people to feel safe in reporting situations where they’ve experienced or witnessed behaviour that does not comply with CFA values.”

It’s too early to understand what the long-term implications of the EBA industrial dispute and other organisational challenges will be. But it’s clear that while CFA and MFB have come a long way, there is still more to do to ensure we protect and preserve the mental health of our firefighters. Too often, still, their plight remains hidden — too shocking for them to confront, and too overwhelming for us as a society to fully contemplate.

While the fire agencies do their best to review, restructure, and rebuild their mental health support systems, for many firefighters the trauma of their job will be a burden they continue to carry alone.

“I have a CFA card that I carry in my wallet,” Keith Pakenham says, rifling through his credit cards. “It has information on peer support, the chaplaincy program, and a number for the 24/7 counselling hotline.”

Finally he finds it, buried in the depths of his bulging wallet. Placing it carefully on the table, he stares longingly at the fine print before continuing.

“I’ve never used it,” he says. “But I carry it with me, always, as a security blanket I suppose.”

Keith Pakenham AFSM. Photograph courtesy of CFA (2016)

If you or someone you are close to needs help, contact Lifeline on 131 114 or BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636.