After 30 years, CFA volunteer veteran Norm Bowen has stepped down from his role as a CFA Peer Coordinator
Ash Wednesday 1983 was a defining day for CFA volunteer veteran Norm Bowen. Tasked with being the strike team leader for crews when fires broke out in Mount Macedon, Norm saw firsthand the devastation the fires caused and left in their wake.
That day would lead him to a new role within CFA – one of being a support for his peers and a willing ear for the many volunteers who needed help after the fires.
Norm credits a gentle but firm nudge in the ribs from his now late wife as the catalyst for his move into a peer support role and his push for the formation of a formalised CFA Peer Program.
Like many who experience traumatic events, he could see the impact the trauma of Ash Wednesday had on other firefighters but had yet to acknowledge the impact it had had on him. At that time there was little or no support for volunteers who were suffering distress as a result of their experiences.
“My wife was a nurse and she could see the signs that I needed support,” Norm said.
“I was adamant there was nothing wrong with me but when I went along to a Group meeting after Ash Wednesday, I could see other volunteers who were impacted; like me, their wives, partners and family members were there with them, concerned about their loved ones.
“We talked about the need for a program to support members. I was group officer of Bendigo Group at the time and I realised that I could help more by getting involved and being a peer than I could as the group officer.”
Norm began focusing his efforts on supporting his fellow members to manage the stress and trauma of attending incidents. The development of the peer program would start in 1985 when a group of volunteers, including Norm and his wife, completed the first informal peer training.
“It was a basic two-day training course in those days, and after completing it we could go out and work as peers,” Norm recalled.
By 1988, Norm was coordinating peers for the entire North West Region. During his time as a peer Norm has supported members through serious incidents and has been credited with saving many lives.
“The major drought which started in Victoria in the late 90s really took its toll on members, particularly those who relied on the land for their livelihood,” Norm said.
“We were fortunate to be supported to initiate programs and deliver whatever was needed to help our members whether that be self-help programs or feed for animals.
“By doing those little things that meant a lot to those members and their families, the peer team built relationships and a lot of trust, and that trust would keep us in good stead for the peer work we would do after incidents or during future natural disasters.
With Norm’s help and experience the Peer Program has grown over the years from a two-day to a 12-month training program. CFA has a statewide team of highly trained and experienced peers who make themselves available to members across the state in times of need.
Norm, pictured above with fellow Peer Program pioneer Pat Bigham, said he has seen a lot of changes in his 30 years as a peer, particularly with the stigma around seeking mental health support.
“The stigma is changing - it’s a lot easier for people to accept help if they need it especially when you have built that trust as a peer,” Norm said.
“I think people, especially men, are more honest with themselves now. Most know there is a problem but sometimes they need support on what to do or where to go; sometimes it’s about telling them they’re on the right track.”
Although he is stepping down from the role of peer coordinator in CFA Districts 2, 18 and 20, Norm will continue as a peer in a mentorship role.
“As a peer you are part of a team and without that team you wouldn’t be able to do what you need to do,” Norm said.
“It’s been such a rewarding experience and I’ve had a lot of amazing opportunities as a result.
“The people that you meet at CFA become your friends for life and if you show an interest you will be supported and given every opportunity to grow.”
Norm Bowen has volunteered with CFA for more than 65 years. He started at Swan Hill brigade at the age of 14, going on to volunteer at Goornong before joining Woodvale where he volunteered for 37 years. He continues to volunteer with District 2 Headquarters Brigade.
Throughout his career, Norm has taken on many leadership roles within his community and CFA including 13 years as Group Officer for Bendigo. In 2004, Norm was awarded the Australian Fire Service Medal, and in 2014 the Order of Australia Medal for Service to the Community. Norm worked at Huntly Training Ground for 15 years from 1995 onwards, and the breathing apparatus facility at the Campus is named for him.
Peer support in North West Region
With Norm stepping down, the Peer team is currently going through a period of change with Gloria Turner the peer coordinator for District 2 and currently overseeing Districts 18 and 20 until the changes take place.
In the meantime, Peer Support can be accessed via the CFA Wellbeing Support Line on 1800 929 232, option 2 followed by your District number. Alternatively, you can call directly using the numbers listed below:
0418 712 886
0409 042 528
0472 682 606
0484 655 760
For more information on CFA’s Wellbeing Services and the Peer Program visit the Wellbeing Hub.