I recently distributed an open letter to people in the eastern States of Australia to hopefully assist people remain emotionally resilient in coping with the challenges being faced via the bushfires.

I had intended to only write that letter and let people get on with it. I am receiving an enormous amount of feedback from people with them sharing their experiences and their own techniques in dealing with this trauma at a personal level. Probably the strongest and most consistent piece of feedback was to accept it had happened and to keep going. As a farmer just outside Wagga Wagga told me on the telephone “Don’t panic and carry on”.

I did however receive a telephone call from the wife of a volunteer fire-fighter that did move me and compelled me to prepare this additional letter. Today’s news of the death of a Victorian fire-fighter in Tasmania has also touched me and like you, can only feel for his family and friends. This lends only more weight to this letter.

I want to talk to the partners of our volunteers.

I took this phone call today and to protect this family’s identify, I will of course be deliberately vague about their location and of course have changed their names. However, this situation occurred -can you relate to it?

The context

This lady (let’s call her Jane -not her real name) called me out of concern for her husband. (Let’s call him Bill.) They farm their property with Jill’s family. Bill is a volunteer fire fighter and in 2011 was fighting a fire in another location with his brigade. While doing this duty, there was some significant fire damage done to his property. Jane remembers that back then, Bill was very cranky at himself for not being around to save his/the families own assets rather than assisting other people in the District. She remembered that back then, there was a reaction from him that was out of character. She was sure that he had some guilt from letting his family down and that he wasn’t around when it really counted. She remembers him as being very moody with this emotion being projected on his children and herself (but not her parents).

She mentioned to me that she remembered how annoyed (she used other words) he was with a particular group within the community who had abused him and the brigade when they restricted their access to their property when they were cleaning up the fire location. This had apparently delayed him from returning to his own property which may have in fact allowed him to minimise the damage. She wasn’t entirely sure that he had ever got over that.

He had even withdrawn from the Brigade’s activities for a while to focus on rebuilding his own assets.

As time progressed, John re-joined the volunteer service which Jane said she was happy about as they were a good bunch of blokes and as she said, it was the right thing to do for the district.

In 2013, it’ has happened again. This time the damage (at this stage) isn’t as bad but the circumstances are the same. John returned to the farm last Friday and Jane has noticed some changes already. She told me she was more fearful for her husband this time and she didn’t want to go through the same tension she and the family felt last time. Her exact words were “I don’t want to have to walk around on egg shells for the next month.” She also described their relationship as excellent, that she loved him and as far as she knew he loved her and the family. But she wanted some advice as to what she could do to (and not do) to help her partner.
Some suggestions

Here is some general advice. I am sure there are other things to do but these may help

1) Celebrate the fact that your partner is prepared to help out other people in times of crisis. That person’s values are to be admired and role modelled. We all know the vital role that volunteers play in our communities and most probably in times like these do we really appreciate their efforts;

2) Don’t panic! It may be best to just let your partner “sleep off” their recent experience. They have most likely worked long hours with little or disturbed sleep. They may just need to recharge their batteries – don’t overreact;

3) Recognise that your partner’s volunteerism is a family issue as much as a personal issue and as such needs to be talked about like any other family issue;

4) Recognise that in the volunteer role, your partner may have probably seen the best and worst of human behaviour. This can affect them and may influence their “view of the world”;

5) If the behaviour continues, give your partner the heads up that you would like to discuss the behaviour and the effect that behaviour has on the family. I think is important to differentiate between the individual and the behaviour. I also think that it is wise to give people warning that you intend to have the conversation for the benefit of the family. Call the behaviour – eg “John, you are doing this…. And that affects us in the following manner…” I have no problem even if you project your thoughts – “John, how are you feeling. I think you may be feeling this way – is that correct? Can we talk about that? Because the rest of us don’t feel that and we prefer that you didn’t (or words to that effect)”. This conversation can be very uncomfortable – especially if you are talking to a male – but keep going. Trust you own instinct as to how far you can go with this conversation at that time. Be prepared to go back to it.

6) The volunteer organisation may have in-house support mechanisms available to you. Whilst you may not be aware of them, many of these organisations have “employee assistance programs” and most likely you have some degree of access to them. It may be worthwhile getting on the volunteer organisations website and just checking if there are some support services.

7) Engage and network with other families who may be in the same situation or have experienced the same issue. How did they handle it? What lessons can be learnt from them? Can local support be generated by just talking with each other? See if that are experiencing the same thing and share and talk through options and solutions that might be acceptable,

8) At the end of the season, when the amount of time required in the volunteer role is reduced, have a celebration with the broader family unit (and maybe friends etc) to reflect on the season and celebrate their contributions;

9) Does a conversation have to occur within the family as to whether the person should return to the fire fighting role and whether their volunteer “energy” can be focused to some other worthwhile contribution?

10) Critically, don’t ignore the issue. It may actually develop into a more significant issue that requires medical/psychological support.

Further support
Some websites that may be of value to you are
www.beyondblue.org.au www.blackdoginstitute.org.au www.lifeline.org.au
Lessons Learnt Consulting also have webinars scheduled for the first working Monday night of each month to provide practical techniques about developing emotional resilience. These are free to attend.

For more information on this article or on these areas for further support, please contact Lessons Learnt Consulting on 1300 365 119 or Dennis J. Hoiberg directly on 0418 384 619 or at info@lessonslearntconsulting.com