19 October 2023

Fortem Australia and the Second National Action Plan: A Resilient Path Forward for Australia’s First Responders

As firefighters face extreme danger on the frontlines of devastating bushfires, and SES crews continue to evacuate flooding communities to higher ground, Fortem Australia welcomes the commitment of the National Emergency Management Agency to implement the ‘Second National Action Plan‘.

This recently released Commonwealth document emphasises the importance of reducing disaster risk and building a disaster-resilient Australia through linking key actions to the ‘National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework’.

The Second National Action Plan will implement the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework and aims to achieve a substantial reduction of disaster risk by 2030. This forward-looking National Action Plan has been endorsed by Australia’s Emergency Ministers across the country, including the Commonwealth Minister for Emergency Management, Senator the Hon Murray Watt. This signals a national commitment to driving down Australia’s disaster risk and building national resilience.

“The Second National Action Plan is for all Australians, for all of us to work together to drive coordinated action towards the goals that we have heard from Australian communities they need. These actions should guide our decisions around investment and building capability and should be inclusive of the needs of all members of society…Now is the time for all of us to work together to implement the Second National Action Plan, reduce our risk, and to continue building a disaster-resilient Australia for generations to come.” – Senator the Hon Murray Watt, Minister for Emergency Management, 2023

Of particular note, we highly commend the inclusion of Priority #2, Outcome #4, National Action #12, which focuses on promoting the professionalisation, skill development, and engagement of the emergency management sector, including volunteers. We strongly resonate with commentary that highlights how resilient communities are best supported by a proficient emergency management sector.

As stated in this vitally important section within the Second National Action Plan, the role of disaster response has a significant mental health and wellbeing impact on first responders. This impact has flow on implications on the capability, longevity, and capacity of the sector if first responders don’t have access to meaningful and timely support.

This statement is reinforced by the Commonwealth Government’s ‘National Disaster Mental Health and Wellbeing Framework’, which highlights that first responders are a cohort that require additional supports due to exposure to historical, repeat, and successive traumatic disaster events. First responders are affected by severe stress due to their disaster response and recovery work, facing crisis outside the bounds of their everyday coping strategies. 

Given these factors, first responders will continue to experience detrimental mental health impacts as a direct result of their ongoing disaster response work. Urgent and well-funded support is needed to build their resilience and minimise the mental health impacts of future incidents. This includes the upcoming spring and summer bushfire periods, which are forecast to be exceptionally severe and prolonged, straining the capabilities of our invaluable first responders.

Right now, the urgency to strengthen and retain the human capability of first responders for this summer is undeniable. This requires a shift toward enhancing human resilience before disaster strikes. Supporting the frontline before disasters occur must become a central focus.

We need to equip our first responders, particularly our firefighters in the upcoming summer period, with the necessary tools to respond effectively. This includes preventative and early intervention supports, such as social connection initiatives, clinical services, independent career management support, mental health literacy resources, and organisational cultural change programs. Importantly, this support must be provided on the ground in regions that need it most.

However, it is also equally vital to provide the necessary support to first responders in the aftermath of disaster events. We acknowledge the long-term nature of recovery and the need for sustained efforts to build resilience in first-responder families affected by cascading disasters.

For instance, in light of the enduring repercussions of the 2019-2020 Black Summer Bushfires and the profound personal impact of the first responder profession, an unfortunate legacy persists as the current bushfire season commences.

The early start to the fire season is fuelling worrying levels of anxiety amongst first responders, many of whom were deeply impacted by the Black Summer season four years ago. As a result, we strongly advocate the necessity for ongoing and substantial funding to address the persistent need for specialised mental health support, which may arise months or even years following a disaster.

Investing in enhancing the resilience of first responders will ensure that these individuals can fulfill their crucial roles with unwavering dedication—safeguarding lives, property, and the resolve of Australian communities. This is a matter of utmost national importance and critical to the overall success of disaster response and recovery efforts.

Fortem Australia strengthens the first responder sector’s capability, longevity, and capacity by addressing the mental health and wellbeing impacts of disasters on responders and their families through meaningful and timely care.

As the nation’s leading organisation for first responders and their families, we are proud to deliver support to these dedicated individuals across the country. We value the National Emergency Management Agency’s commitment to supporting the capability, longevity, and capacity of Australia’s first responders and look forward to continued partnership of the National Emergency Management Agency in this crucial endeavor.

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