Stop bullying firefighters, please!

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(Image courtesy Victorian Fire Services Review)

A recent review of the mental health of firefighters in the Metropolitan Fire Brigade has prompted one firefighter to plead for an end to the bullying. EBA Truth reports.

AS I CONTINUED to pump away at 100 compressions per minute, I averted my gaze from the patient’s vacant, grey face. In line with the habit and training of emergency services workers, I was seeking to minimise my unnecessary exposure to psychological trauma. This time, however, averting my gaze did more harm than good. My eyes alighted upon an old copy of the Herald Sun, its front page dedicated to smearing firefighters.

I don’t know what it said; I looked away. Which of the dozens of editions with front-page attacks on fire fighters was it? Perhaps it was the one that made me look reckless and selfish, with the lie that fire fighters refused to go to work during a period of high fire danger, on Peter Marshall’s orders.

Maybe it was the one that made out I was greedy, with fabricated wage figures vastly in excess of my actual wage, which was 15 per cent below the Australian average at the time.

Or was it of Jane Garrett (former emergency services minister) vintage, dedicated to slandering me as a racist, misogynist bully?

Perhaps it was the article that spawned a lie of election-altering scale that persists to this day — the claim that conceited professional firefighters wanted to make volunteers sit and watch fires grow while waiting for seven union members to arrive.

I looked away for the same reason that the Herald Sun has been banned at many fire stations: it is an occupational health hazard. It causes psychological trauma to firefighters. As with a routine medical call, I can brush off each attack from the media with barely a second thought. But the catch is that psychological trauma is cumulative. We liken trauma to drops in a bucket. For 68 per cent of firefighters, the bucket has overflowed into symptoms of moderate to severe PTSD.

The first rule of psychological first aid is to minimise exposure. I had done this by looking away from my patient, but needed to act again when I found the Herald Sun staring me in the face. There is a crucial difference between the two psychological hazards, though: unlike my patient, the Herald Sun caused psychological harm, knowingly and deliberately. A fitting term for this is psychological assault. If repeated, it clearly meets any definition of bullying. No public interest defence is plausible: the assaults were based in lies, fabrication, exaggeration and slant.

Assaulting an emergency services worker is a criminal offence that carries heavy penalties. Why should psychological assault be different, indeed, be condoned?

In a way, the gutter press are like Pavlov’s dogs: a predictable response to stimulus is expected. Because the response is predictable, those who provide the stimulus are also culpable. The Herald Sun’s stimulus over a number of years has been a steady feed of statements from senior management and senior government sources, and a parallel stream of leaks one can only assume originate with the same cohort. These people are culpable for the Herald Sun’s psychological assaults on every professional firefighter.

Am I making outlandish claims? I’ve said nothing that is not supported by the October 2015 Fire Services Review (which was not released until 16 March, 2016 after its release was blocked by former Minister for Emergency Services Jane Garrett). 

The Review found that the previous (Coalition) Government

‘... deployed a deliberately ideological attack on the UFU and effectively encouraged CFA and MFB to go to industrial war with their respective workforces.’

Page 34, Victorian Fire Services Review.

This included actions that were 'clearly inflammatory and designed to portray firefighters in a poor light,' and had had 'a profoundly damaging effect on morale, with many commenting that morale is at its lowest in decades in both organisations'. In other words, a sustained and deliberate campaign to discredit every firefighter, in ways that clearly inflicted deliberate psychological harm. Again, bullying.

The Fire Services Review did not put a stop to the bullying campaign. Instead, Jane Garrett suppressed the release of the report, while she went about misconstruing its findings in order to portray firefighters as the perpetrators of bullying. This is the context in which Garrett announced she was calling in the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, immediately raising the suspicions of firefighters that it, too, would be a hatchet job used to psychologically assault us. Naturally, the expression of those suspicions invited even more flak towards firefighters, which continues be used by media pundits to bully firefighters.

Predictably, the bullying campaign against firefighters intensified. Only the occasional voice of truth was able to cut through it. Firefighter Emily Trimble’s emotional phone call to 3AW stands out as compelling evidence that the allegations made against us were unfounded and were experienced by firefighters as bullying.

Hear Emily's call to 3AW on 16 December 2015 HERE.

The latest psychological assault upon firefighters stems, with characteristic irony, from a review of mental health in the MFB. Entirely predictably and regardless of its contents or reliability, the Review was used by the Herald Sun to slander firefighters. Culpability must surely lie with MFB senior management for planning to release the Review to the media, for planning a corresponding press conference and for leaking the review to the media after the UFU sought the intervention of the Fair Work Commission. The use of firefighter suicides as a premise for inflicting even more harm is a damning indictment of the moral bankruptcy of all involved.

The UFU’s doomed attempt to intervene to protect the psychological wellbeing of its members was met with public indignation from the report’s author, Dr Peter Cotton, adding further weight to the psychological assaults that predictably resulted from the release of his report. Surely it should not be up to firefighters to remind Cotton of the central principle of medical ethics: first, do no harm.

EBA Truth is a firefighter, writing anonymously to protect his job. You can follow EBA Truth on Twitter @ebatruth or on Facebook here.

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