6 October 2023

Strengthening the Resilience of Australia’s First Responders: A Call for Action

As Australia faces the impending threat of a challenging fire season due to a recent El Niño declaration, reliance on first responders has never been more critical. These brave individuals, numbering 370,000 strong, stand on the frontlines to preserve lives and protect property in disaster-affected communities nationwide.

Currently, hundreds of severe fires blaze across several states and territories, mere weeks after the end of winter. Thousands of properties are threatened as these bushfires increase in size and frequency. One such example is the disastrous bushfires in the Bega Valley this week, a region that is still deeply impacted by the 2019/2020 Black Summer Bushfires. Simultaneously, upwards of 150 rural Victorian homes face the risk of substantial flooding, and thousands of residents have been evacuated to higher ground, as heavy rainfall continues to feed into Victoria’s river systems. These flooding regions are the very same communities that were battling fires just days before.

During these cascading disaster events, we depend on first responders to answer the call and safeguard communities. Firefighters battle escalating bushfires, while SES crews evacuate regions at risk of substantial flooding. Police and ambulance personnel continue to protect and care for communities nationwide. Their dedication is unwavering, but it comes at a significant personal cost. Consequently, first responders grapple with alarming rates of psychological distress, diagnosed mental health conditions, and suicidal thoughts, surpassing other high-risk professions like the Australian Defence Force.

A post-Black Summer bushfire study revealed over 5,000 firefighting personnel needed mental health support — twice the expected rate — with only one in five receiving adequate care from their first responder agency. This underscores the urgent need to bolster human resilience before, during, and after disasters occur. Fortem Australia is the national leading organisation driving these efforts and providing essential support, including preventative and early intervention social connection, mental health, and career management programs.

Fortem Australia also stands firm in the policy arena, advocating for increased levels of government support of first responders’ resilience, which is on par with investments in infrastructure and firefighting equipment. Boosting recognition and investment will enhance first responders’ capabilities and retention while reducing reliance on the Australian Defence Force for disaster deployments. As a recent example of our policy work, in late September 2023, Fortem Australia provided vital evidence at a public hearing of the Senate Select Committee’s Inquiry into Australia’s Disaster Resilience in Townsville.

This public hearing provided opportunities to engage in fruitful discussions with Senators serving on the committee, addressing concerns related to the impending fire season and the urgent need to bolster the resilience and retention of Australia’s first responders. The Hansard transcript of this public hearing, with Fortem Australia’s evidence contained on pages 10 – 15, can be read by clicking this link. The evidence presented at this public hearing event builds upon the written submissions that Fortem Australia has tendered to this Senate Select Committee inquiry.

Fortem Australia also recently tendered a submission to the joint Department of Home Affairs and National Emergency Management Agency’s ‘Alternative Commonwealth Capabilities for Crisis Response Discussion Paper’. Fortem’s submission emphasised the urgent need to advance the resilience and retention of first responders and reduce the strain on the Australian Defence Force during times of domestic disaster deployments.

Furthermore, this submission recommended consolidating support services under a unified national umbrella – like the disaster resilience partnership that Fortem Australia is proudly building with R U OK?, StandBy Support After Suicide, LivingWorks Australia, and the University of Canberra. Our partner organisations will work in collaboration to deliver end-to-end resilience support to first responders and their families in disaster-prone regions across the country.

In support of this approach, Fortem Australia also recently convened a partnership workshop with these organisations at the University of Canberra. Together, we explored ways to enhance the wellbeing, suicide prevention, and retention of first responders before, during, and after times of disaster.

Amidst the efforts of State and Commonwealth Governments to supply first responders with the physical equipment and communications networks they require to tackle disasters head-on, we must not forget the individuals who wield these tools.

Our country must prioritise human resilience and the human capability of first responders. The Commonwealth must take the lead in backing a nationally coordinated support system for all first responders. To ensure seamless accessibility with limited barriers to access, this support should be administered by an independent organisation such as Fortem Australia. This is not just a conversation of national significance. It is a pressing national imperative, and it is directly linked to Australia’s disaster resilience.

It is high time we deepen the investment in and support of those who protect our communities. By doing so, first responders will be better prepared to withstand the rigors of their roles and the added pressure of working on the frontlines of cascading disasters. The path to a more resilient Australia starts with supporting those who safeguard the nation.

Throughout all engagements in policy initiatives, conversations with the government, and collaborations with partner organisations, Fortem Australia remains unwavering in its commitment to preserving, supporting, and enhancing the resilience of first responders. We are resolute in continuing this work, ultimately ensuring that those protecting our communities receive the care and support they justly need and deserve.

This article was written by James Maskey, Director of Policy, Fortem Australia