Reforming the Brigades

15 Feb

 Scrutiny of the NSW Fire Brigades shows an organisation in the process of change, writes Alicia Alford.

14 June 2010

THE New South Wales Fire Brigades (NSWFB) has come under intense scrutiny this week as an independent investigation reveals a ‘Boys Club’ culture, rife with allegations of physical and psychological abuse. The report highlights the feelings of isolation and inadequate support felt by those who experience psychological distress in their time on the job.

The independent review of workplace conduct in the NSWFB put forward recommendations in the hope of reforming the organisation’s culture. The Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) has also announced it will launch its own investigation. Reforming an entrenched organisational culture takes time. It needs to be done over several stages and reinforced as each new group of employees progress through their career stages. Questions of whether it will work and how long it will take are difficult to answer, yet it is apparent that within the Brigades attitudes are changing.

A ‘Boy’s Club’ mentality has permeated the organisation, driven by the challenging physical nature of the tasks fire fighting requires. Masculine qualities of physical strength and practicality were and continue to be necessary qualities for aspiring recruits. However, a stronger focus on the mental health of fire fighters is starting to feature alongside physical ability. In a widespread shift of attitudes, the Brigades are seeking to transform the management of mental health from a code of silence to acceptance as genuine reaction.

Risk is inherent in some things. It is certainly so in the role of a fire fighter. A constant willingness to place one’s own life on the line to save the lives of others is no easy sacrifice. 

Terry Kirkpatrick, of the NSW Fire Brigades says ‘the stigma has been breaking down in the last 10 years. The people seeking help really do have some issues.’ Both a fire fighter and trained psychologist, Kirkpatrick sees the culture of mateship and teamwork within the Brigades as part of the support system but recognises it may not be enough for some individuals. ‘In general work teams are very supportive. It’s often workmates who recognise changes early on, which means they can get help early on,’ says Kirkpatrick.

Kirkpatrick suggests it is up to the individual to access the internal and external systems made available by the Brigades. ‘How people respond is very individual. Group sessions do not always work. Some individuals find them quite confronting, they like to be alone and process things themselves.’

Research into fire fighters responses to seeking mental health support suggests the stigma round seeking mental support is dissolving, says Dr. Helen Paterson, Psychologist at the University of Sydney. ‘The culture [in the fire brigades] is changing for the better.’ Most surveyed in her research felt that those with psychological distress were experiencing ‘genuine reactions’.

There is no single superior way to provide mental health support for those who experience trauma. Paterson’s research indicates mental support programs cannot be a one size fits all response. ‘Individuals have different means of coping. People may vary on their responses to the incident, it depends on the situation.’

The NSW Fire Brigades offers voluntary internal and external counselling services, or Employee Assistant Providers (EPAs). ‘The EAPs provide psychological support, which is offered 24/7 through a 1300 number.’ Internal EAP services cover a broad scope of mental health issues. ‘Internally, the EAP we offer is much broader in its scope to offer fire fighters and their families support,’ says Kirkpatrick.  In support of ‘broader mental health issues’ the Brigades offer services which are based on the model of what the ‘white, male, Anglo-Saxon’ would in general need support for, including ‘depressive episodes, anxiety and psychiatric disorders’. ‘It’s free and independent,’ says Kirkpatrick. ‘It’s voluntary whether or not they use it.’

Whether counselling should be obligatory or continue on a voluntary basis is contested. Kirkpatrick says, ‘generally, we find on average three per cent of the workforce utilise the external EAPs. Internally, you’re looking at four per cent.’ These figures are fairly standard for organisations which offer these services. Also under continued discussion is the necessity of providing both internal and external EPA services. Dr. Paterson suggests some fire fighters turn to external services for the sake of ‘anonymity’.

Integrating mental releases into the everyday running of the Brigades offers one option to further support. ‘One idea has been for fire fighters [who are returning from a traumatic situation] to have time offline, where they know they won’t have to respond to another call for several hours,’ says Paterson. Ideas such as time offline would allow fire fighters to cope in their own ways, whether by “surfing, working out, [or] talking about the experience”.

It is apparent attitudes towards mental health within the Brigades are changing. But learning from experience can take time.

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