21 July 2022

Media release: Don’t ignore the signs… Long-term impact of disaster events on first responders

Fortem Australia is urging first responders and their families to heed even the smallest signs of the personal impacts of attending a disaster – even if it’s years after the actual event. There has never been a more pertinent time to provide for support for the hundreds of first responders across Australia, as the country continues to deal with the aftermath of too many natural disasters – including the recent flooding in NSW and Queensland.

Experiencing mood swings, or feeling sad, worried, or anxious – either at baseline or when confronted with reminders of an event such as images in the media – can be signs of collateral damage arising from disaster work. Fortem Australia says this damage is real and can present many months or years after the event.

“The personal impacts of events like bushfires, flood rescues or extensive stints as a paramedic or SES volunteer may not appear day s or even weeks after things seem to be back to normal,” says Fortem Australia CEO John Bale.

“First responders may feel the need the hold it together for the sake of their families or co-workers, or they may not have processed the event beyond their role in responding to it at the time. The signs that someone is in real distress can be subtle and may not appear until a significant amount of time has passed.”

Fortem Australia says that more attention needs to be paid to the overall health outcomes of first responders Time to recover from an event is often insufficient or interrupted by another emergency or disaster, and many first responders are not closely monitored post event. For those noticing the signs, many are apprehensive to report that they are experiencing them.

“We need improved surveillance systems at the grassroots level, and more effective risk mitigation strategies when planning disaster response,” says John Bale.

Intrusive recall is another experience that can impact first responders with chronic PTSD.

“It can be sparked by seeing media coverage on local or international disaster events, where there is loss of life and devastation of property, or likeness to an event that the first responder has attended,” says Bale.

Families of first responders can reach out to Fortem Australia for help should their loved one(s) need support. Early signs that someone could be experiencing Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) include an increase in the use of alcohol or drugs, insomnia, losing interest in family or social life, or an inability to feel positive about the future.

Several studies of Australian firefighters who developed PTSD found that they were later diagnosed with depression and panic or phobic disorders, anywhere between one to four years after the frontline episode.

“Fortem Australia is currently the only national mental health program for first responders and their ER families,” says John Bale. “We need more robust evidence on the associated risk factors to create the wellbeing programs we know make a huge difference.”

Since its foundation in 2019, Fortem has supported over 6,500 first responders and their families through science-backed social connection activities, clinical services, and transition programs.