Emergency personnel too often a victim

IT'S midnight when you get the news every parent dreads.

There's two police officers at your front door who inform you there's been a fatal car accident involving your child.

Or maybe it was you leaving a party after having too much to drink or using drugs.

You feel fine so get behind the wheel but on that winding road you've driven home a thousand times before, you take a corner far too fast and collide with another vehicle before coming to a halt against a tree.

Paramedics at the scene pull out all the stops to stabilise you before the SES can cut you out of the car and get you into the air ambulance. Unfortunately, the other driver wasn't so lucky as his injuries are so horrific that identification takes some time and the funeral will require a closed casket. Later that morning the police will will visit his widow in what will be shattering meeting for everyone.

Or you wake in the middle of the night to a screeching fire alarm and find yourself in a room full of smoke.

As you stumble around coughing, desperately trying to get your kids out of bed, two fire-fighters wearing breathing apparatus appear and quietly and calmly, help your family safely out of the burning home.

Our emergency service workers - be they career or volunteer - do an amazing job and their first concerns are the victims and their families.

However, too many of the tragic situations they attend could be prevented and the harrowing aftermath avoided.

How hard is it to call a taxi instead of letting your mate drive home? Or show some spine and call their parents. They'd much rather get up at 2am and collect their drunk son or daughter than have the police inform them of a tragedy. Or Insist they crash on the couch and hide their keys.

Perhaps you need to face the fact you shouldn't be driving and ask a mate to see you home safely.

There's no doubt that our paramedics, police officers, fire-fighters, state emergency service members and paramedics continuously face situations where they are in charge of the lives of others, and this can be a risk factor for their mental health.

It's a message endorsed by Police Association of NSW executive member for the Northern region, Brett Henderson Smith.

He said people should have respect for everyone in the community.

"People need to consider the impact (of accidents) not just on themselves and their family, but also on the people who attend the scene who are trying to protect them," he said.

"Don't abuse alcohol or illegal drugs and get behind the wheel...there's an impact on police officers who attend horrific scenes and who sees thing nobody should have too," he said.

Mr Henderson Smith said he believes police officers are under greater amounts of stress than ever before.

"I think police officers obviously have had their stress levels increased and I think we are reducing the stigma of mental health issues across the force with the programs we have in place," he said.

While fire-fighters are renown for their professional approach, Rural Fire Service vice-president Michael Brett said no-one is bulletproof.

He said incidents involving children are particularly harrowing.

"From my perspective any kind of trauma does affect us all the first responder who have to attend and deal with them, some are fairly hardened to this but i believe it affects everyone differently," he said.

"How we deal with this, the best thing for our crews is to have hot debrief at the incident then we have a system we have a critical incident support service and a chaplaincy program."

Mr Brett said people must be responsible for their actions.

"Just be concious of your actions, they have a broader implication on everybody including emergency services," he said.

"My fire-fighters are all volunteers, they don't get paid to go out and clean up a mess such as body parts off a road and they do get traumatised and there's a greater flow-on effect."

Emergency workers facing mental health issues

According to BeyondBlue chairman, the Hon. Jeff Kennett AC, the mental health of our first responders is of paramount importance.

"This is not only for first responders and their families, we all need them to be mentally healthy and alert when they are called upon to help and protect us, should we ever need urgent assistance," he said.

"Our first responders are repeatedly exposed to distressing situations, violence, trauma and death."

Mr Kennett said facing day-to-day workplace stresses, such as heavy workloads, tough shifts, sometimes discrimination and bullying, and simple things such as poor or inaccurate communication can have an immediate detrimental effect on some people.

"For others the potentially negative impact of their job builds up over weeks, months, even years," he said.

"Or, the effect of being exposed to challenging situations compounds over time."

Mr Kennet said for many, this stress occurs after they leave their very disciplined employment, which if combined with the absence of the comradeship they enjoyed in their jobs, can have tragic results.

"While many first responder agencies have commendable procedures in place to support employees in times of need, sadly, mental illness and suicides are too high," he said.

According to the Intentional Self-Harm Fact Sheet based on coronial cases of career personnel around Australia, 110 police officers, paramedics and fire-fighters died by suicide between July 2000 and December 2012.

While the report revealed one police officer, paramedic or fire-fighter is taking their own life every six weeks, the actual number may be much higher.



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