Mental illness, suicide rates among NZ firefighters on the rise

A growing number of firefighters are struggling with mental illness and even taking their own lives.

Their union believes it's because they're attending more medical callouts - including the most traumatic of situations.

Under a 2014 agreement, fire officers now attend medical calls when asked by ambulance officers, which can be anything from an obese person stuck in a doorway to a cardiac arrest or suicide.

Professional Firefighters Union representative Derek Best said the emotional impact on crews is very different to fighting flames.

"These kind of medical calls, the situation stays with you when you go back to the station and when you go back home," he said.

He said one firefighter had been called out after a 12-year-old girl committed suicide, and a few weeks later, the father of the girl had done so as well.

Mr Best said firefighters are increasingly battling mental health issues. He said there were two suicides at the end of last year, and eight or nine in the last couple of years.

In 2013 the Fire Service attended more than 6500 medical emergencies. In the year to June last year it rose to more than 11,500 - almost double.

Fire and Emergency New Zealand people and capability director Brendan Nelly said that has coincided with a decline in mental health.

"The evidence is quite clear that more of our staff are struggling with illness."

He says a once macho culture among male staff is no longer acceptable, and he's determined to see change.

"It's not right that we stand by and not do anything when our staff are struggling," he said.

Fire and Emergency is putting programmes in place including counselling, a peer support programme and a nationwide information tour.

Firefighter Des Hosie, a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder survivor himself, is running the tour.

"It was incredibly difficult to put on a brave face and function throughout," he said. "I wouldn't want anyone else to go through what I went through."

Fire and Emergency staff will continue to attend medical callouts, but it's now determined to better serve those on the frontline who are fighting their own battles.