22 August 2019

New ESA Commissioner puts mental health of first responders on the front line

| Lachlan Roberts
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Ms Whelan is the former chief officer of the ACT State Emergency Service. Photos: Supplied by ACT ESA.

Mere days after a massive 9.0 earthquake unleashed a deadly tsunami in Indonesia on Boxing Day 2004, killing 80,000 people and injuring a 100,000 more, Georgeina Whelan led a response team into the frontline.

Running the Anzac Field Hospital in Aceh, Ms Whelan and her team of 90 surgeons, nurses and intensive care specialists helped survivors of the tsunami-stricken Sumatra island, experiencing first-hand the awful and confronting sights faced by front-line responders.

The memories remain fresh in her mind and will continue to do so as she starts her new role as Emergency Services Agency Commissioner for the ACT and the first female Commissioner the ACT ESA has had.

“It was pretty lifechanging and whilst it was a very challenging role, personally and professionally I found it really rewarding,” Commissioner Whelen told Region Media.

“It was rewarding to be able to get on the ground and to see tangible evidence of our good work and leave the place in a better position after three and a half months of back-breaking work.”

While Commissioner Whelen describes herself as a “robust and resilient” person, the sights she encountered in Sumatra left a scar that was felt even a decade later.

“Like most people, I didn’t come away unaffected by it and 10 years later, I found myself impacted by it, in a moderate and minor way,” she shared.

“I was very lucky that I was able to access really good care and support so I was able to nip in the bud something that could have gotten out of control.

“I have worked with young men and women and seen the benefits of a proactive mental health and wellbeing strategy. Hence my passion for mental health and wellbeing.”

While there is no single solution to the silent killer that challenges many Australians across the country, Commissioner Whelen said that is no excuse not to focus on mental health programs.

“Prevention is better than cure,” she said. “Creating a safety net within our organisation for our workforce that is afflicted as a consequence of their employment is vital.

“I am hoping that the next step in the maturity of this organisation is comprehensive health and wellbeing programs, and people see that as normal and not special.”

But first, Commissioner Whelan is focusing on repairing the troubled relationship with the ACT Firefighters Union over unresolved enterprise bargaining negotiations, which has dragged on for more than two years.

Resolving issues with the ACT Firefighters Union and promoting mental health programs for first responders is on top of the list for the new Commissioner.

Commissioner Whelan believes both the union and the ESA have firefighters and the people of Canberra at the heart of the issue, and hopes she can resolve the disagreement in the coming months.

“I am confident that we will work very productively in the coming months to get that resolution that we have been talking about,” she said. “I do believe that the Union knows that I have a good understanding of where they want to head and they have clarity about the approach I would like to take.

“Now it is about taking those next steps and I can see us starting that next phase in the coming weeks.”

The news of Commissioner Whelan’s appointment was met with support from the union, with spokesperson Greg McConville stating that he was hopeful they can “work cooperatively to resolve the major issues of crewing, firefighter training, health and wellbeing through enterprise bargaining negotiations in the coming months”.

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