Scarlet skies shadow the earth. The air grows smoky, thickening like fog. Blurred figures move through the obscurity. People fleeing, panting, cradling children, pets and photographs inside desperate and shaking arms. Birds caw and fly into the fire. Kangaroos bound through fields alight further igniting brittle scrub.

The hills begin to glow, an orange mass moving through trees. Fire fighters charge boldly into depths of the blaze, their shields forged with bravery. They battle into the night, where the seconds that pass, the darker the skies grow and the longer time stretches until the arrival of daylight. The terror. The flames. The chaos. Fighting for life against nature’s evil. Lives taken, homes destroyed and the earth swallowed down the Devil’s throat.

As it ends, the smoke departs unveiling a charcoal land of smoldering trees and ash, spotted by the colour of a rescued home or group of estranged livestock. Cries of heartache and gratitude ring over the bitter silence as survivors return to consolidate the rubble. Though there are other souls in suffering, concealing the trauma with suppressing silence. Those on the front line may suffer the deepest; much like the chime of a clock tower, the impact of post-traumatic stress can shake the very fabric of their psyche.


“After Black Saturday had gone through I discovered I had PTSD, and that meant I was unable to turn out to a fire until I was fixed in the brain cells- but I probably never will get that far,” admitted Robert Kincaid, ex-fire fighter with Country Fire Authority (CFA) of Victoria.

Rob and his fire crew were the first respondents to the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in the small town of Callignee, West Gippsland. As many ache to recall, Black Saturday took 173 lives, thousands of homes, one million acres of land and over four billion dollars in devastation cost (Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission, Final Report. 2009).

10931240_930390283652762_7125763292081178671_nYet the costs for Rob included his mental health, his home, financial welfare, ability to work and independence. Eight years on, the memories of Black Saturday for him still remain.

 

“We had seen my house burnt to the ground. Come to the next corner and there was a deceased in his car-“

His voice wavered then silenced where the pottering of his wife and now full time carer clanged in the background.

“Unfortunately- I knew him. But I didn’t recognise him in his car- because he was half skeleton and half… wax.”

The line fell silent as Rob paused. I was speechless and struggling to avoid visualising what had been fed into my ear. Searching for something- sympathy or a mere acknowledgement, but the image he painted seized me.

“I still dream about that every day.”

In his seven or eight years of service, the trauma became apparent as he waded through his most harrowing experiences.

“Having to search cars for more deceased. Pulling people out of water tanks. Pulling people out of houses”

“People pull their stock from dams and they’ve got no more hooves left because they’ve melted.”

The conversation had all of a sudden dropped and took with it my stomach.

“The public don’t see that stuff,” he said.

After a long and exhaustive process with chaplains, psychiatrists, the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital and years of medication fiddling, Rob learnt to live with his mental illness keeping to a medicated and sheltered lifestyle with fortnightly psych visits. His battle to stand up again, to be back on his feet was admirable.

“I’m not flat out doing it, but I’m just there doing it.”


That night of Black Saturday, around one hundred and sixty kilometres away in Lilydale, the District Emergency Coordination Centre (DECC) crews were livid; watching the fires, predicting movement, planning defence, sending for aid, communicating to the community.

(Kinglake/Marysville major fires).

Kinglake/Marysville major fires

Inside the control room, CFA volunteer Jenna Kelley was busy assessing and dispatching public warnings and advice to the community.

“We were mid-shift and our operations manager came and said ‘we have lost Kinglake’,” she recalled.

As she recounted her ordeal, her voice was unwavering. Were it not for paying attention to her story, it would seem as joyful and trivial as the day’s predicted weather movements or a catch up call with an old friend. But it was not, not at all.

“Then we started getting the overflow of triple-0 phone calls- which we weren’t supposed to get. Basically I had people who were trapped in their cars and they were actually dying on the phone.”

I held the phone to my ear as she explained the horror she had experienced. Being the last point of contact for people as they died, being untrained in how to handle the situation, how to comfort people in severe distress. With every word the weight of the phone grew heavier in my hand. I thought of the one hundred and fifty nine people that perished in the blaze. A list I had come across of the missing, found, and deceased citizens in Black Saturday flashed in my mind. It was created during the event by local members of communities all over the devastated areas, each contributing their knowledge, some going out in groups to search, some investigating answers. It was a symbol of people uniting in times of despair, in times of helplessness and times of fear all searching for their loved ones. But for Jenna, the reality was that she could have been the last person to speak to a loved one from this list and that her words or lack of could have shaped their last moments.

“My biggest fear at the time was that I couldn’t do anything and I wanted to give them some kind of comfort.”

In the following years, a relentless ache of traumatic memory haunted her life. Jenna developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and found herself walking in fear yet again. Psychological triggers interrupted her daily motions, she recalled upon times she had to leave class during her studies to stop from breaking down in distress. At her best, she learnt to avoid and minimise her exposure to potential triggers through exercised caution. At her worst, the blaze sparked again and put her through week-long nightmares.

“Really weird dreams of running over cows who are burning,” she scoffed “It sounds really weird, doesn’t it?”

It didn’t. Not at all.


Just over half an hour away in Diamond Creek, another CFA volunteer could have empathised with Jenna. Fiona Macken was on the trucks and in the station on Black Saturday. Whilst off the ground, distraught people swarmed the station looking for information on their friends and family.

“We had no mobile comms, so those people couldn’t get in touch with their loved ones” she said.

Fiona knew the affected townspeople very well after almost a decade of serving. Although the harrowing scenes of Black Saturday attached the emotional turmoil to her as she attempted to console the panicked crowds.

“Listening to them and seeing the devastation first hand really took its toll.”

In the wake of Black Saturday, she fell into a severe depression and consequently was diagnosed with PTSD, which not only jeopardised her wellbeing but played part in her marriage ending. Before her condition, she had almost completed a PhD and held ambitions for cycling in the 2012 Olympics. These too had ended.

However brought down, she was not defeated. The CFA’s peer support service provided immense comfort and assistance in getting Fiona to a better place. After spending time rebuilding her walls also with a psychologist, she says she is still mentally scarred from her experiences but has become more resilient to cope with trauma.


The good news amidst all of the bad is that great services are in place to help the effects of posttraumatic stress. The CFA provide an extensive array of help from chaplains, counselors, Peer Support groups and psychologists when needed. They also offer training modules online for managing good mental health, Managing Mental Health at CFA.

Rob found comfort in the system looking after him with his chaplain, psychologists and financial welfare that CFA provided.

“They looked after me there. I cannot default the system in that.”

Jenna held great appreciation for her peer supporter Frank Roache, who she endearingly called Uncle Frank.

“He was incredible. He called me every day to check in and would even come out to have coffee with me.”

She has since been able to continue on, administering an emergency animal relocation program.

Fiona’s peer support assistance caused her to go and became a peer herself.

“I saw the benefits of the peer support program. Talking about your experience is very valuable.”

As the CFA looks after Victorian volunteer firefighters, there grows concern for the welfare of the largest membership of fire fighters in Australia, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service totalling over 72, 000 people. The NSW RFS puts importance on the Crisis Incident Support Service (CISS) and encourages mental health awareness upon its members (Service Standards 3.1.8 & Service Standard 7.1.2, 2001). Group Captain of the Lake George Zone, David Loft firmly believes in its benefits.

“We stress the use of CISS a lot,” he said “They will come at the drop of a hat.”

CISS provide counseling, therapy, group and individual consultation support. However former fire fighter turned clinician psychologist, PhD John Durkin believes traditional methods like these which may employ couch sessions, coping mechanisms and medicines, act as “anaesthetics”, that is anything to ease the pain. Based in the UK, his alternate training program Traumatic Incident Reduction demands “confrontation, effort and a bit of pain” to remedy post-traumatic stress. Its efficacy had been evident in complex cases of veterans, nurses and fire fighters, and further praised in a presentation to the World Congress on Stress, Trauma and Coping in 2015. Since 2013, TIR workshops had appeared in Australia, training former members of State Emergency Services of NSW and VIC to perform TIR elsewhere. Such evidence proposes it as a potential benefit in training for Australian fire authorities.


It is clear there is help and plenty of it but specifically for dealing with the aftermath of trauma. Yet a large hole in the picture lies in the absence of training that can prepare emergency respondents for what they may face.

“We are told about it you may encounter, you may come across. But there’s no mannequin sitting in the car half decomposed” Rob added.

Jenna recounted the helplessness she felt as she endured people’s last moments of life claiming “we weren’t trained for it either.”

Fiona said her brigade Captain “did not believe in peer support or trauma preparation.”

“Unfortunately, a lot of what people learn comes down to the characters in charge of brigades.” she added.

Now qualified in the peer support program, her insight has enriched perspective for both sides.

“Some level of preparatory training is required” she believes.

This gaping hole seems to echo the words prevention or at least minimisation in regard to the traumatic baggage they may take on. A course of practical preparatory training, such as simulated events, real-life accounts and application through role play, may equip respondents better to avoid or reduce repercussions of trauma.

Research on this scarcely exists regarding fire emergency services. However, in September last year, a paper emerged that could pose a possible solution. A 2016 study on combating PTSD in the US military by Dr. Laurel Hourani, outlined an intervention measure – Predeployment Stress Inoculation Training (PRESIT).

It is simpler than it sounds.

Marines in pre-deployment are administered the PRESIT program, designed to help cope with combat-related stressors that may impose them and lessen the effects of trauma through resilience-building. The notion of this type of training is based on theory of ‘inoculation’; re-exposure to something to generate immunity, for instance immunisation needles injected to prevent illness.

That is not to say it is a “cadavers in the classroom” strategy. Rather, it utilises technologies of simulation (simulated stressor environment) and biofeedback (a treatment technique using bodily signals to improve health). Results identified PRESIT effective for the Marines, allowing better performance during stressful situations on deployment, proposing it as an “effective addition” to primary training for combating PTSD.

As most emergency services bear similar work stressors, these findings propose a possible direction for assisting trauma in the fire emergency services.


Though promising avenues are emerging, post-traumatic stress may never truly be eradicated. NSW RFS Standards of Operation identify that the reaction of a person determines the critical effects of the incidents.

“It is down to the individual” David affirmed.

Some members have gone their entire careers without experiencing trauma like Rob, Jenna or Fiona. Fire fighting – as David regarded – is “a game of chance”, depending all upon how one reacts to a situation. And to make it harder, there are inherent pressures that force the fire fighter into every situation.

Most renowned is the sense of commitment; initially it was to protect the home or take part in the community, then it becomes the obligation to serve and protect, to fill the role and to be a part of something bigger. Throughout twenty one years in the Service David had never heard any volunteers say “I won’t do it.”

Within the commitment bubble, there lies a protective tendency toward their fellow members, where they feel they would rather step onto a confronting situation than let someone else.

“It’s like looking after a little brother or sister,” said David.

Commitment forms part of it, but more so is the crux of the firie code: resilience. Forming the hardened exterior, a firie’s resilience gives their ability to push on through the job regardless of circumstances. Sometimes the only way they can do it, sometimes a hindrance as it can bury unresolved issues.

Rob’s resilience blinkered his awareness that night on the hill in Callignee. He and his crew saved thirty seven people from the burning mountain, but in his mind a drive to gather bodies and flee the fire ground shifted reality.

” I only seen three or four people- I didn’t see thirty people. I guess my head didn’t allow me to see thirty people so I could continue my job.”

Faced with horror, resilience meant he ‘never felt feared on the ground.’ And in times where nature beckons the riling of sadness, panic, or stress, blocking those emotions can eventually weaken the very walls that keep them out.

“You got no time to be scared or feel your emotions because everything is running on overdrive and hypo to keep you there.”

In the year following Black Saturday, seventeen year old Liam MacWilliam joined the NSW RFS who regarded the resilient mindset a ‘subconscious thing’.

“If you can’t put [fear] in the back of your mind you’re no good on the day.”

But this is normal to being in the Service and it will continue to put health and wellbeing at risk. Living on with scars of trauma can make simple things difficult to endure; like watching television, sleeping, dreaming, communication, cognitive ability, speech, to name some.

In a solemn moment, Rob reflected on his life the way it is now.

“Some days I don’t want to be a part of it, some days happy to be a part of it” he said, relaying the point it was a constant challenge.

Jenna had only returned to Kinglake for the first time this year after eight years coming to terms and moving on from her ordeal. Fiona still struggles with managing her condition but helping others through being a peer worker has been a great reward.

Emerging research shows additional training could pose a good chance of decreasing the likelihood of trauma. Implementing simulated preparatory measures (PRESIT) or intensive post-trauma training (TIR), may help keep the minds of Australian fire fighters safe while they keep the rest of the nation safe.

As Liam concluded “the best defense is our training”.


 

By Tori Heron 

Images – 

Helmets – Tori Heron

Fire on hill- Courtesy of Jody Kincaid, wife of Rob Kincaid ex-CFA

Map of Black Saturday, 2009- Info News: https://www.infonews.co.nz/photo.cfm?id=9254