ACT SES volunteer says mental health focus needed after nightmarish fire, hail events | The Canberra Times

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One year on, the impact of Australia’s recent bushfires remains a terrifying memory for the nation. While many watched in horror at the news or worried for relatives and friends in threatened areas, ACT’s SES volunteers, like Tammy Bennett, worked for months supporting critical services. It’s an effort the volunteer, who’s put on the uniform for eight consecutive years, feels proud to be apart of. “When it rains, everyone runs inside to get out of the rain, and the SES runs out,” Ms Bennett said. The first few months of the devastating bushfire season meant Ms Bennett drove firetrucks from the territory to northern parts of New South Wales to help support fatigued firefighters early on. But only a few months later in January 2020, the danger had landed on their very own door step. On a hot afternoon on January 22, a grassfire began burning out of control in the Pialligo Redwood Forest, threatening the ACT’s Emergency Services Agency headquarters just down the road. While it was a concern for the Fairbairn office, Ms Bennett admitted, the team simply treated it like any other fire and added it to the list. “When the Beard fire ignited, I was actually working here in [the ESA] headquarters in the incident room … and teams just went into action straight away – there was no fear,” Ms Bennett said. “It was like when you get an email, and you have to deal with another email on top of the 10 emails that you’ve got, so [the response team] just changed their tactics, made their plans and dealt with it.” But it was another freak weather event that stretched the volunteer force even further – Canberra’s monstrous hail storm. The event only lasted around 15 minutes on January 20 but the damage it had wrought on the nation’s capital was enormous, resulting in 2500 call outs to the emergency service. “We had fires on one side [of the incident room], and we had hail damage and everything happening on the other side and it just escalated,” Ms Bennett said. “Once again, we activated volunteers and they had been working hard over the fire season so they were quite exhausted … but they all jumped up and they just got about their business.” READ MORE: It took around two weeks to clear the 2500 jobs the storm had added to the team’s workload but Ms Bennett said it was their professionalism that got it all over and done with. “We’ve never experienced something like this before and it did open our eyes,” Ms Bennett said. “It’s all about what team you’ve got working behind the scenes.” It was an intense time for many and Ms Bennett, who had to face many of the events head on, admitted it could take a toll on her mental health. “Some events are quite gruelling, quite hard, fatiguing,” Ms Bennett said. “[I just] step away, take a breath, and then come back into it and get a whole new perspective, as long as you can take that time.” It’s part of the reason why she agreed to support a new initiative aimed at helping first responders cope with the impact their work has on their mental health. It’s called Peak Fortem and Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Friday it would become available for free to all first responders and their families in the country to encourage mental fitness. Ms Bennett said she hoped the program would encourage those like her to recognise the signs and to work on strategies to reduce their impact. “You don’t actually know that you might need help until it might be too late,” Ms Bennett said. “It’s not something that’s brought to your attention straight away and to start to stop and think and take that breath and go, ‘you know what? I might need to talk to someone or I might need to sit back’. “I think as a first responder in the heightened emergency situations that we do deal with, looking after your mental health [is important]. If you’re not right, how can you help someone else?” The program is one step in the process. Ms Bennett said it was important having a support network at home once the job’s over but having a supportive and understanding workplace was just as crucial. “Remembering that family connection is very important – making sure you step away and take that time to regroup with your immediate family,” Ms Bennett said. “But as you join the service, you start to have another family in the service too.”


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