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Volunteer firefighters ignite PTSD debate

A former volunteer firefighter says he would like more support to be provided to volunteers within emergency services following an initiative to give career firefighters access to presumptive PTSD coverage.

The legislative change will presume a firefighter’s PTSD is directly caused from their place of work, instead of burdening them with the process of proving the diagnosis is work-related.

The new provisions for career fire fighters were launched in early April. Photo: Supplied.

The announcement came more than a year after the same initiative was provided to career paramedics, however, it’s not clear when the legislation will begin to take effect.

Binu Adjinup Fire Brigade’s former first lieutenant Todd Henville was a volunteer firefighter for 39 years.

He says he has personally experienced PTSD-like symptoms from his time as a volunteer.

Mr Henville has had to fight fires twice at his own farm.

“I had two headers burn out from under me … it was a particularly unpleasant experience both times. That’s part of the reason, in the end, we got out of farming.”

Mr Henville says he struggled to drive headers following the blazes because of the trauma of reliving the experience.

“For a while after I lost the first header, I didn’t want to drive a header and as you’re farming that’s what you do,” he says.

“After I lost the second one, I really didn’t enjoy driving a header. I was always concerned about fires.”

Mr Henville says volunteer firefighters are provided with limited support, which many volunteers choose not to access.

“We’ve been given phone numbers of people to ring through the brigade hierarchy,” he says.

“But whether people take that option … normally they don’t.”

Branch secretary of United Firefighters Union of Western Australia Katherine O’Hara says the community should be looking after volunteers and recognise their services.

“Volunteer, career firefighter, whatever you are, the trauma which you’re having to deal with is something that most of us can’t comprehend,” she says.

“The Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service go to a lot of the same jobs that our career members go to.

“Volunteers do a service for the community off their own backs, they do an amazing job and we should be making sure that we’re looking after them.”

The legislation introduced does not apply to volunteers, however, will be beneficial to career firefighters in obtaining work compensation without reliving painful experiences, says Ms O’Hara.

“To submit a claim currently [before presumptive law], firefighters are forced to relive their memories,” she says.

“You have to actually go into the specifics of it and that’s really awful, where we’re having to relive some of the awful things that our people see and have to do which can potentially trigger them.

“[Presumptive coverage] means that when a firefighter puts a worker’s comp claim in, they don’t need to jump through a large number of loopholes to say, ‘well I’ve received this diagnosis because of the incident or things that I’ve dealt with or witnessed during my duties as a firefighter’.”

According to the WA Local Government Association, volunteers can access insurance for volunteer-related incidents by lodging their claim with insurance provider, Local Government Insurance Scheme.

Mr Henville says volunteers need access to more effective support service.

“I would like to be given a lot more support from the professional people within firefighting or emergency services to volunteers,” he says.

Minister for Emergency Services Stephen Dawson was contacted for comment but declined to be interviewed.