11 July 2023

Where are they now? Meet former first responder Fiona 

Please talk us through your experience as a first responder 

“I was a Firefighter with Fire Rescue Victoria for just over 9 years, having commenced recruits in 2007 and working my way up the ranks. I applied and went through the gruelling selection criteria to become Station Officer, a position I held until retirement in March 2023. 

“I had a break down in 2020 and was diagnosed with PTSD, however Fire Rescue Australia don’t have the classification of ‘medical discharge’. I went through almost two years of treatment and recovery before my care team came to the determination that I was at permanent incapacity and had to retire. It was horrible, I didn’t choose this and at no point did I dislike my job. 

“I was so honoured to wear the uniform, so proud to do my job, and even over a decade later I still pinch myself and look at the badge on my arm and say ‘wow, this is me!’. In saying that, there is nothing easy about our work. Innately, it’s tough and it’s hard, so I had to come to terms with the fact that I could no longer do my job and that firefighting was not good for my health.” 

What difficulties do first responders face when transitioning from first responder work? 

“I used the words ‘I feel like an overeducated nothing’. You don’t have a piece of paper that says, ‘I am’ or ‘I can do’. This is where Fortem was able to help. They transferred my transcripts and skills (acquired in the brigade) into certifications that can be used in the civilian world. It was a challenge because they don’t exactly apply to the civilian world or are transferrable. They don’t recognise our skills or certificates as they are. You do feel like ‘nothing’, even though you have a wealth of skills and experience.” 

How did you first hear about Fortem and what Fortem services have you utilised? 

“My clinical psychologist mentioned the wellbeing activities that were being run by Fortem near me and said, ‘Just look into it and see what you can do’. One of the biggest struggles with PTSD is the loneliness, you don’t have a choice, you can’t step out of your four walls. So, I started by participating in a coffee catch-up, cooking class, ghost tour and online fitness classes. I then found out Fortem had been supporting emergency service personnel with transitioning from service to civilian life, so I enquired. I felt so blessed to be connected with Career Management Specialist, Anthony Ferro, and honestly after just one phone call with Anthony I had never felt more understood and valued. He said, ‘You have served, you have worn blue, you are part of the family’. 

“What I wanted was to have hopes and dreams for my future, and (at that time) I had none. I had nothing to aim for, nothing to hope for, apart from getting better. I began with learning interview techniques, practicing resume writing, and some career counselling. I was told to start following my heart which was the most foreign concept to someone like me. In the services it was always ‘yes sir’, ‘no sir’, ‘three bags full sir’. They asked, ‘what makes you happy’ and I had no idea. I never put myself first. I then did personality testing and found that being a first responder didn’t suit my personality; there were other things that were driving me. I wasn’t looking after Fiona on the inside; she was pushed down because I had to be big and strong, being that when I became a female firefighter there were 1,800 men and 50 females in my service.”  

How has your experience been using Fortem’s career management services

It really stripped me back to ‘who am I, and what do I like and enjoy?’. Through the counselling and the personality test they worked out that I am an introvert, prefer small groups, and am passionate about fitness and healthy living, so I ended up becoming a qualified yoga teacher.” 

If you could provide any pearls of wisdom in the transition journey, what would they be? 

“To be proud of your service and to know that now is the time for you. It is time for you to follow your heart and find what lights you up, but also what serves you, because you are important, and your happiness is a priority.”  

Where are you now? 

“I teach yoga and it is quite an amazing and beautiful space to be in. Yoga for me was always just stretching and injury prevention, I didn’t really think much more of it. It was through my breakdown and recovery that I discovered the mental health side, and the fact that yoga is equally as good for your mind as it is for your body. We are achieving mindfulness, strengthening our muscles, and looking after our joints. I have now almost finished trauma responsive yoga training, so I will know what it is like to be a patient and what it is like to be a therapist.”