4 Apr 2016

Firefighters feel strain of suicide calls

9:53 am on 4 April 2016

Firefighters say they are feeling the mental strain of increasingly having to attend suicides and medical calls.

Fire fighter checking the pressures of the appliance at 242 Adelaide Road, Newtown.

Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

The number of medical emergencies the Fire Service responds to - including suicides, heart attacks and respiratory arrests - has jumped by 57 percent in the past five years.

Gavin Gibbons has witnessed this increase first hand as a volunteer firefighter in the town of Runanga on the West Coast for close to 30 years and now its fire chief.

"Our brigade has attended five suicides in the last 14 months," said Mr Gibbons. "I myself have been to four, and we've been called in as to assist and perhaps provide CPR if it's capable of doing that and that's something we've had to deal with as a brigade."

In late 2013, the Fire Service reached an agreement with St John to attend all life-threatening, cardiac or respiratory arrest emergencies, also known as 'code purple' calls.

While ambulances also attend, firefighters are often the first to arrive, especially in smaller communities such as Runanga where ambulances or police officers are based further away.

Mr Gibbons said his brigade had never had to attend suicides before the agreement, and going to them can be incredibly difficult for volunteers, often made worse by knowing the people or families involved.

"Most of the ones we go to of course we know or know connections to that particular person being in a small town and the families know us. So there's some things we [firefighters] perhaps hadn't thought of when we agreed to attend these code purple calls."

Firefighters often don't know how to deal with grieving families in these situations and more training to help with this was needed, he said.

The Professional Fire Fighters Union agrees. Its president, Peter Nicolle, said the Fire Service offered good counselling services after attending a suicide, medical call or any traumatic event, but more training was needed to help prepare them to deal with the situations they find themselves in.

"Especially dealing with the family members and onlookers and understanding how they have to deal with that.

"Attending the calls is not so bad, it's dealing with the emotions and trauma of what you've witnessed, what you've had to undertake and getting the feelings right before you actually attend these events can actually help with that in the long term," Mr Nicolle said.

He said he had been asking the Fire Service for this type of training for over a year, but had been told it may have to wait until the Fire Service review was completed.

"Now we keep getting put off a little bit by, 'we're going to have to wait until the Fire Service review is done for a lot of these things to happen because nobody knows what the new organisation is going to be like," he said.

"[It's] not really good enough that we have to wait. We're not happy with the situation at this time."

Mr Nicolle said clearer information about the type of call fire crews were getting and what to expect when they arrived at a medical emergency was also needed.

Fire Service national operations manager Paul Turner said the service has listened to the firefighters' message on the personal stress of medical work and more training was being rolled out.

"This is a new thing, doing the medical work, but the feedback we have from St John is that our firefighters are really good at CPR - they make a big difference to each incident.

"But it's new work, and with any changes come difficulties in adapting, and they feel that they want more training."

Kristen Hamling, who has worked as a trauma psychologist for about a decade, said comprehensive training to learn how to deal with situations, and to help people feel more in control before the fact, was important to help increase people's coping.

"If you are going off to a job that is not something that you believed you have trained for, or that you are psychologically prepared for, or you have some information about, then that makes people feel quite helpless and quite vulnerable.

"These are conditions that can erode people's resilience and coping, particularly over time."

Mrs Hamling, who is also undertaking a a PhD in the well-being of emergency services workers, said good peer support and a supportive environment was equally important.

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