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The origins of our peer support program
In 1983, the Ash Wednesday fires engulfed large numbers of coastal, central and eastern regions in Victoria with the tragic loss of 13 firefighters at Upper Beaconsfield.
By June Cabena, Kallista The Patch Fire Brigade
The fire storms that ensued that fateful day, together with the deaths and many injuries, devastated the volunteer community of CFA.
The aftermath brought about a realisation that something needed to be implemented to help firefighters caught up in these catastrophic events.
But what would it be?
Six years after Ash Wednesday, a Critical Incident Stress Peer program became a reality. It was set up to support volunteer and career firefighters and their families.
The CFA regions, (later renamed districts) of 8, 26, and 13, together with officers in charge and chaplains, did what they could to provide much-needed support, but something more substantial was required. Around the time of the ’85 fires psychologist Dr Robyn Robinson from the Lincoln Institute, had brought together an emergency services consulting group called the Emergency Services Critical Advisory Group.
South Belgrave Captain John Viney, was invited to represent Region 13 VRFBA, joining representatives from all emergency services including Victoria Police, fire brigades, Ambulance Victoria and SES. The advisory group met regularly to promote the importance of counselling following traumatic incidents.
At the time, John had highlighted that there were tens of thousands of volunteers around the state in CFA and SES who needed a dramatic shift in thinking. The sentiment followed that these volunteer firefighters, who represent 1200 brigades around the state, leave their jobs and families to face often abnormal and threatening situations which may include traumatic incidents. Moreover, career firefighters were included in the effected groups. There were concerns about members leaving their services.
As fate would have it, a New York firefighter was also concerned as to why their members were losing interest and leaving the services. He was so concerned that he decided to enrol at university which resulted in a PHD in Psychology. The post trauma model he devised in his thesis became known as the Mitchell Model.
It was a simple model of defusion, debriefing, and follow up. The skills involved were listening and attention undertaken with compassion and understanding.
Significantly, the program was designed to be conducted by firefighters because of their understanding of fireground situations and MCAs, supported by psychologists and/or chaplains trained in these skills.
The program later became known as CIS or the Critical Incident Support program.
Additionally, an awareness program was designed to introduce the CIS concept to volunteer brigades, together with career firefighters, to enable awareness of the possible effects of trauma on fellow members such as personality changes that could require CIS intervention. The program provided information on how to call for assistance and what supportive procedures were required to be followed.
In late 1980, the advisory group organised a conference attended by representatives of CFA. Among our representatives were ACO Bill McIntosh, RO Ian Symons, John Viney, and CFA chaplains Alan Jones and Mark Blackwell.
The conference was followed by excellent support from CFA management and together with their psychologists Debbie Glowaski and Phillip Palmer, a pilot team of peers was established. Training the new team took place in 1989 under the guidance of Chaplain Mark Blackwell.
The first intake was from regions 8, 26, and 13.
The team comprised Ian Symons, Peter Lucas, Paul Scragg, John Tindall, Bill Facey, John Stanton, Rob van Dorser, Eric Gracie, Yo McKinnon, and John Viney. (Due to records having been destroyed, apologies for the possible omission of others who contributed to the pilot team).
Acceptance of the program had to be earned as firefighters requiring support were worried about being considered not brave enough. This issue was overcome by the program’s strict rule of confidentially and its credible success.
In the early days, CIS team members occasionally entered a station by the rear door.
Eventually the benefits were realised and slowly the program became part of CFA best practice.
A highlight in the early days was when a call for the CIS team was made over the radio. Now CIS is expected to be called for all major events.
The region staff in these formative CIS times were and are widely thanked around the state for their support.
The second intake of regions 8 and 13 CIS peers took place in 1991. The awareness of the need for emotional support was spreading rapidly throughout the state and most regions were encouraging suitable people to become peers.
Ian Symons was the first to become regional peer coordinator for regions 8 and 13. John Viney took over responsibility when Ian resigned in 1993.
Phillip Palmer was the CIS state coordinator until he retired in 1991. Following Phillip’s retirement, I was invited to take over that role. With an enormous amount of help from the two Johns - Viney and Tindall - the program grew in both size and effectiveness.
We managed two conferences, one at Palloti College near Wesburn, and the other at Castlemaine Gaol. The latter conference, held in 1999, marked the 10th anniversary of the Peer Program.
The deployment of strike teams to Sydney in 1994 saw the first demobilisation with handouts to returning crews and the start of peer support to strike team deployments. There was strong support from senior management, including Chairman Len Foster, Chief Officer Harry Rothsay and ACO Bill McIntosh.
The Peers’ greatest recognition came following the Linton fires.
Geelong West’s tanker was caught in two quick successive burnovers and their five crew members died at their location. The defusion of the remaining Geelong strike team was conducted at Geelong.
Prior to the defusion, Bill McIntosh showed his compassion by speaking to the Geelong strike team personally before handing over the support to the peers to carry on with their duties.
A large number of peers helped in the long follow up recovery phase at Geelong under the leadership of John Viney. I took on the leadership role at Ballarat and in the Linton area using Regions 15 and 16 peers.
According to some of the recipients, the work done by these peers helped them cope with the tragedy. I am sure mistakes were made, but from every incident there was learning taking place on how to improve the effectiveness of the program.
With over 20 days of intensive support from 50 peers from around the state, the Peer Program continued with the Geelong tragedy until the last funeral.
The Peer Program has grown over the years to be fully accepted as an integral and highly-valued component of the CFA charter. From major events such as Black Saturday to the present, and whatever the future brings, the CIS program is on standby and ready to go.