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Peer support confronts local trauma
When your father is captain of the local fire brigade, CFA is “all in the family,” says Ouyen Fire Brigade member Noela Barker.
She didn’t follow her father into brigade membership, however, but her two sons, years later.
“If your children are involved, you become involved,” says Noela. “I’ve been in the Ladies Auxiliary and done fundraising for junior brigade members. About four years ago [Captain] Trevor Mills knocked on my door to say the brigade was looking for a new secretary/treasurer so that’s what I’m happy doing now, and I also sometimes help out with radio communications when there’s an incident.”
Noela has completed Minimum Skills which allows her to travel to the fireground to deliver food, water and fresh crew members.
“I found it really interesting learning how fire reacts, but I don’t want to go out on the truck. I don’t want to get smoky and dirty,” says Noela with a good chuckle.
And no one has to. With so many other vital roles to choose from, volunteers who don’t want to attend incidents are still very welcome at their local brigade.
But being a CFA insider with two sons who do turn out on the fire truck has also introduced Noela to the darker side of emergency response.
“They see some very upsetting things at incidents and are sometimes in dangerous situations,” she explains. “Last year I was concerned about the repercussions of a traumatic incident for everyone on the truck and got in touch with our operations officer in Mildura.
“I was really proud of my boys and all the volunteers but I was angry with CFA for exposing them.”
Noela was introduced to CFA’s peer support program. Fire brigade volunteers are of great value to the community and one way that CFA gives back is through this free health and wellbeing program. CFA members and their relatives are given access to a confidential service to talk through tough times in the family, on the farm or through being exposed to a traumatic event as a fire brigade member.
While families are our natural support, sometimes it’s valuable to talk to someone privately outside our everyday lives. The peer support program puts people together with services based on their needs – everything from talking to a chaplain or psychologist to being driven to medical appointments.
In January 2014 alone, CFA peers in the Loddon Mallee area from Bendigo through Charlton and up to Mildura were called out 142 times, so there’s an established need.
“Our brigade arranged a group information night about the program over dinner in the club,” continues Noela.
“I wanted to follow up and talk to someone and found there was heaps of help out there. I wasn’t able to travel, so the service that was right for me was talking to someone over the phone. I’ve been able to access the support just by sitting at home in a comfy environment.
“The person I talked to was brilliant. It was friendly. You’re not judged. I give myself a hard time but talking took the pressure off me and I got reassurance that my feelings were normal.
“You worry as a parent but I have faith that my sons are well trained firefighters and they’re sensible. The brigade mixes youth and experience in the make-up of truck crews and you’ve got older members really supportive of the newbies.”
The peer support experience was an overwhelmingly positive one for Noela and brought her brigade membership back into balance.
“The program is in the background now but I know it’s there,” she says. “I want husbands, dads, wives and mums to know that support is just a phone call away, day or night.
“A local emergency has an impact on so many people – it sends out ripples – but trauma is not the new normal.
“An emergency also makes you aware of what’s important. It’s people who are important.
“The brigade gives to my boys so giving back just feels like the right thing to do, but volunteering with CFA is also a social interest. It’s a very sociable group of down-to-earth people and we enjoy getting together.”
CFA has a range of support services and resources available to help members manage their mental health and deal with difficulties when they arise, including:
• Peer Support Program - trained members offering support and guidance – contact your local Peer Coordinator
• Member Assistance Program – a 24-hour counselling service – 1300 795 711
• Chaplaincy Program – offering 24-hour pastoral care – 1800 337 068
• HeadsUP online toolkit - information and advice on managing mental health and relationship issues – www.cfa.vic.gov.au/headsup
The services are confidential, free of charge and available to all CFA members and their immediate families.