Local Rural Fire Service (RFS) brigades are turning to other volunteers and their community to get through the trauma of the fires and isolation of the pandemic.
Batemans Bay Rural Fire Brigade captain Ian Aitken says people are beginning to reach out for help, in stark contrast to the toughing-it-out approach that pervaded the RFS in the 1980s.
“The old ‘I am tough’ routine does not cut in anymore,” Mr Aitken said, saying there’s no longer a stigma associated with asking for help.
“I have seen a lot of the guys who are tough say ‘I am struggling’ and it is good to hear [them] say that so we can do something about it. They have been really brave to come forward to me and say they need some help and that is a good thing.
“The people in my brigade – and I can only speak about my brigade – are reaching out. A couple of people did get the help they wanted and they are doing their sessions and it is helping them, definitely.”
Mr Aitken says that one of the biggest problems throughout the brigade is a feeling of guilt at what could not be done over the summer.
“I think it is more of a case of them feeling frustrated that they could not do as much as they wanted to do on the day,” he said.
“Unfortunately you just have to take the thought that you can only do as much as you can do, you can only save what you can save.
“It is a bit of a mindset and I am very mindful of people’s behaviours, if I see any changes in behaviour I am right onto it to see how they are holding up. [Some] members live on their own, and on top of that we have had COVID-19 so they are isolated, so I keep in constant contact with those people to make sure they are OK.”
During and immediately after the fires, RFS brigades like Batemans Bay were flooded with public donations, but smaller community brigades, who didn’t have the IT capacity or media prominence, missed out.
In response, Mr Aitkan decided to pass some of those funds on to the Runnyford, Deua River, Nerrigundah, Tinpot and Belowra brigades.
“Our brigade was pretty well equipped to begin with, there is extra money that has come in via the public that I have diverted to other brigades … a lot of other brigades missed out on that type of funding,” Mr Aitken said.
The Federal Government has rolled out about 50 per cent of the Commonwealth’s $2 billion National Bushfire Recovery Fund (NBRF) since mid-May to help with recovery efforts. However, of the $78 million available for mental health services in affected communities, only 16 per cent has been rolled out.
As a part of the $78 million for mental health services, $16 million was set aside in January to help specialist organisations deal with trauma experienced by emergency services workers and their families.
None of that money has been rolled out yet, with the Government saying that services will be available from 1 July, and the national action plan will be put in place from 1 July 2022, despite the original release being labelled as “immediate mental health services”.
If you or someone you know is struggling, you can contact Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis support service on 13 11 14.
Counselling services for NSW RFS volunteers and staff are also available on 1800 049 933.