Firefighter mental health a 'crisis' - union

Warning: This story discusses suicide.

The pain is still raw a month on from Patrick Sarjeant's death. He is being remembered as a loving husband, a caring dad, a strong firefighter.

He was a good mate too, to Brett Cowper and John Parker. Since his death in early July, things have been difficult.

"I think everyone is hurting, we might not all be showing it, or we're hiding it, but I think everyone here is hurting," Parker says.

Sarjeant is the third firefighter Cowper and Parker know who has ended their own life. Knowing the pain suicide causes loved ones first-hand, they're now calling for crews to look after each other better.

"Reach out, talk, but also it's a two-way street, make sure that you're the person that's looking out for your loved ones and your peers and ask 'are you okay?'" Parker says.

The data on suicides among firefighting staff is unreliable, but the Professional Firefighters Union says it's a crisis, and Fire and Emergency New Zealand (FENZ) bosses say they're listening.

"Suicide among firefighters is something that is happening, and it is something that we must face up to and deal with", says FENZ's Brendon Nally.

Why firefighters?


In Australia, career firefighters are twice as likely to suffer from post-traumatic disorder as the public, and it's known that in New Zealand they also have a much higher risk of mental health issues.

One of the main reasons is the number of traumatic incidents they attend. These are jobs they've always assisted on, but five years ago, they began taking on more medical work from St John.

Crews are trained in skills such as CPR and the use of defibrillators, and are now often the first responders to what are known as 'purple calls', or non-breathing patients. These are the most serious medical events that traditionally have low survival rates.

Since 2013, purple calls have increased nationwide. In Auckland City, numbers have skyrocketed 1600 percent. In Counties and Waikato, 200 percent. Numbers have doubled in Whanganui and East Otago.

Despite that, what they are doing is working. Nationally, the number of people surviving cardiac arrests has doubled. But the personal toll among crews has also increased dramatically.

"If it was ever alright to think along the lines of 'harden up', it's certainly not alright now," Nally says.

FENZ recently commissioned one of its senior officers to research physiological illness and mental health issues among staff, and identified a number of areas where improvement is needed.

It found programmes could be better resourced, and there is no training to deal with the traumatised family of patients on callouts. There are no peer-support refresher courses, and there's an overall theme of disconnect between FENZ headquarters and the frontline.

Wattie Watson leads the Professional Firefighters Union and says fixing these issues is crucial not just for the crews, but for families as well.

"Their mental health is really at peril, and I think it's really one of the hardest things for families to send their person out and know they're going to get them back broken at some point," she says.

Is enough being done?


FENZ says it now has 32 on-call psychologists across the country available to firefighters and their families. It says it's also training all leaders to recognise psychiatric issues among crews.

"The biggest change is the attitude and culture of our leadership; we're saying to our leaders it is okay not to be okay. It is your prime responsibility to look after your people," Nally says.

He accepts that some staff feel disconnected from national headquarters, and says this is certainly an area for improvement. Nally says when he was a frontline firefighter, it was the same story.

He says he's also determined to provide training for staff in dealing with family members of patients at scenes. He says it's something that wasn't anticipated when the agreement was signed with St John.

That's a heartening message for frontline firefighters like Cowper and Parker to hear, because they know what they'd rather be doing with mates like Sarjeant.

"I'd rather be holding a fishing rod on a boat than holding another casket," Parker says.

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