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I soon realised this was the life of a firefighter
It was 3.04am when the call came in. A house fire in Noble Park, southeast of Melbourne, 1984. Structure fully involved.
Two CFA brigades responded. Among the crew was then 28-year-old Keith Pakenham, a keen photographer and electronics engineer, but still a rookie firefighter.
It was Keith’s team who discovered the three bodies, buried in the rubble that once resembled the upstairs bedroom of their family home.
More than 30 years on, Keith has attended over 8,000 incidents and is now a CFA photographer. Yet his eyes still water as he recalls his first major house fire.
“You can never prepare yourself for these types of scenes, not through the basic training we were receiving at that time,” he says.
“It was a massive wake up call for me.”
The three victims were a mother and her two young children. With no smoke alarms installed, the family did not wake as the flames enveloped their suburban brick veneer home.
Keith later discovered they were the same age as his wife and two sons.
“I didn’t sleep for a few nights after that,” he recalls.
“But I soon realised this was the life of a firefighter.”
It’s no secret that Victoria is facing a dramatic surge in the number of firefighters showing signs of depression, anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
For many CFA firefighters, particularly those in Melbourne’s growing urban fringe, most call outs are not to bushfires – they are either to house fires or motor vehicle accidents (MVAs). Vic Roads figures show there are over 30,000 road accidents in Victoria each year, resulting in over 4,000 serious injuries. In 2015, TAC reported 252 fatalities.
Often, attending these road accidents can be more distressing than a straightforward structure fire or grassfire.
Keith has spoken previously about the complexities involving high-speed MVAs. He says this is one of the most challenging aspects of being a modern day firefighter.
“You are forced to make very difficult decisions, decisions that have nothing to do with fighting fires, and they can be the difference between life and death,” he says.
“These decisions will weigh on your mind long after you return home or to the station.”
The fallout from these accidents can also trigger a release of other emotions.
“Road accidents can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Keith says. “Some of our members can’t bear to see these horrific scenes play out time and time again.”
Prior to the 1990s the psychological aspects of firefighting were largely ignored. There was no formal debrief process back then.
Some firefighters would talk about their experiences with family and friends, in an attempt to normalise what had happened. Others would try to play it down.
“Sometimes we would joke around a bit at the station,” Keith recalls.
“This sounds harsh, but we needed to deal with it like you would deal with any other job, and separate ourselves from the situation.”
Today CFA and MFB have a range of support services available to help members to manage their mental health.
CFA’s support services, which include peer support and independent counselling services, have gained traction in recent years. The proactive support of mental health awareness campaigns — such as this week’s RU OK? Day – also remind us to regularly check in with each other, generating further recognition, understanding and acceptance of mental health issues within the organisation.
The Victorian Government recently launched a new Pilot Program to provide even greater support, specifically for members suffering from PTSD. This pilot will accommodate up to 60 participants who meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD and may benefit from one-on-one treatment.
While it’s clear we have come a long way, for many firefighters the darker side of the job is a burden they continue to carry alone. Make sure you check in with your friends and colleagues this week, and ask them ‘are you OK?’ because too often, still, our emotional plight remains hidden.
“I have a CFA card that I carry in my wallet,” Keith says, rifling through his credit cards.
“It has information on peer support, the chaplaincy program, and a number for the 24/7 counselling hotline.”
Finally he finds it, buried in the depths of his bulging wallet. Placing it carefully on the table, he stares closely at the coloured print before continuing.
“I’ve never used it,” he says. “But I carry it with me, always, as a security blanket I suppose.”
Thursday 8 September is RU OK? Day
As part of this national awareness campaign, CFA encourages all members to connect with the people around them and offer support to those who may be struggling in any aspect of life.
CFA has a range of services available to help our members maintain good mental health. These services are free, confidential and available to all CFA members and their families, for any mental health concern. They include:
- Member Assistance Program (MAP): 1300 795 711 (24 hours)
- Peer Support Program: Contact your local peer coordinator
- Chaplaincy Program: 1800 337 068 (24 hours)
- HeadsUP online resources: cfa.vic.gov.au/headsup
If you or someone close to you requires mental health assistance, you can also contact your local GP or Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636.
For immediate assistance, contact Lifeline: 13 11 14.