WA DFES identifies ‘partial’ barriers to emergency responders’ recovery
WA’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services’ (DFES) says it is “not uncommon to see individuals entirely exhaust their workers’ compensation entitlements without having achieved a full or sustainable recovery”.
DFES made the comment in its submissionto an August 30 Senate committee’s mental health of first responders inquiry hearing in Fremantle. The Senate Education and Employment References Ctee is inquiring into the “high rates” of mental health conditions first responders, emergency service workers and volunteers experience. The WA dept noted the w/comp system provided monetary resources for medical treatment. “In severe mental health cases this is an important support mechanism,” the dept said. It enabled “the impacted individual to access often expensive and approved treatments”, it said. But it was not “uncommon to see individuals entirely exhaust their w/comp entitlements without having achieved a full or sustainable recovery”. DFES said the w/comp “system is a critical support for emergency service personnel experiencing a mental health condition through the co-ordination of treatments, management of complex cases, assistance in return-to-work (RTW) [and] the allocation of alternative duties or redeployment”. But the w/comp system “plays little to no role in preventing occurrence. Adversely, the w/comp system may also be a partial barrier to help … due to fear of identification, ridicule or impacts to employment or volunteer status”.
Mental health issues often nearing crisis point before help is sought: DFES
DFES (above) was established on November 1, 2012, under the WA Fire and Emergency Services Act 1998. It has 22,085 operational volunteers and 1,138 operational career personnel who perform first responder roles. DFES comprises the Career Fire and Rescue Service, Fleet and Equipment Technicians, Public Service and Government Officers, State Emergency Services, Volunteer Fire and Emergency Services, Volunteer Fire and Rescue Services and Volunteer Marine Rescue Services. DFES’s submission said “anecdotal evidence suggests a large proportion of mental health issues are often nearing a crisis point before help is sought or formal reporting occurs”. “This is likely due to the increasing severity and/or frequency of symptoms and the possible requirement for professional intervention,” it said.
Such presentations were “typically captured and recorded” through the w/comp system in severe cases, private GPs or mental health professionals, DFES’s employee assistance program (EAP) or confiding in a trusted colleague, mentor, family member or close friend.
“Physical injuries are a large part of the presentations to w/comp however underlying mental health conditions may subsequently be identified creating additional barriers for returning to work.” It said “one of the complexities” of dealing with mental health conditions was the confidential nature of reporting, which resulted in reduced sharing and transfer of information.“Exceptional circumstances do exist where confidential boundaries can be broken but for this to occur there needs to be an imminent risk of harm to an individual or another person,” DFES said. That “breakdown in information transfer between informed individuals may impede a collaborative and holistic approach with negative consequences for treatment and recovery prospects”. DFES said there had been a “marked increase” in the number and nature of specialised mental health support and treatment services available.
“Unfortunately, the current demand on mental health services and treatments can often result in significant time delays between making and attending appointments. This issue is generally heightened in regional locations.” Personnel experiencing mental health conditions faced challenges when they could not make a full recovery, the dept said. “Often these medical restrictions will likely be re-aggravated through the course of their emergency services duties and therefore alternative working or volunteer arrangements need to be adjusted accordingly or medical retirement investigated.”
WA emergency services minister Francis Logan signed the DFES submission. The Senate ctee inquiry’s public hearings are continuing, with the next slated for Sydney on September 25.