The BrotHERhood in Emergency Services
It’s summer in Australia, and as usual that means hard work for emergency services. The last few months have been particularly demanding Down Under, with catastrophic fires affecting property and lives in most States across the country. Firefighters, police and ambulance personnel spend long hard days dealing with situations most of us never have to deal with.
We call them our ‘heroes’. The reality is that our heroes are human too. The stresses they experience are unique and if unchecked, those stresses can lead to more serious mental health issues. In a bid to increase awareness of those stresses, provide some strategies to build resilience and improve support networks, Behind The Seen was launched in May last year. No it’s not a spelling error, the name relates to what emergency services “see” that the public don’t.
Whilst emergency services have unique stresses, they also have some very unique strengths. This article focuses on just one of those strengths – the culture of “brotHERhood”. Yes, those letters are in caps for a reason, we have many women in the services now, but the term “brotherhood” seems too historically significant to replace, hence the caps to signify gender equality. When a person joins one of the emergency services as a career move or as a volunteer, there is an underlying assumption that they become part of a “select community”, or as is it more often referred to internally, a “family”.
This informal process has no geographical boundaries – a firefighter in Australia is a “brother” to a firefighter in the USA. No introductions needed, the only commonality necessary for acceptance is the fact that they are both firefighters. This unique sense of camaraderie that can instantly connect strangers from across the globe has the potential to be an enormous source of strength in terms of support for first responders and their families.
As social workers we all know that effective support networks assist with early intervention of mental health issues, and can significantly enhance recovery processes. The notion of brotherhood then is vital when assessing how we can increase resilience in emergency service responders and their family members.
If a bond can be established in an instant with a total stranger in another country, it would be easy to presume that in local terms at station level, crew members who work together have an even stronger connection, one that far exceeds any standard “working relationship”. Certainly this can be the case in some stations, but ask any of the older firefighters about the brotherhood and they’ll tell you “it’s not like it used to be”. Somehow that old feeling of being consistently “supported” is losing its impact.
Whilst a number of reasons are suggested for this, the bottom line is that things have changed. If those changes have somehow reduced the supportive connections that used to exist, then it’s time to look at how to adapt to those changes in order to revive and strengthen the notion of brotherhood. How can this be done? The following experience illustrates that sometimes a simple project with a common goal can bring new connections and a revived awareness and trust in support networks available.
By what some might call a “twist of fate”, a painting created to raise funds for “Behind The Seen” in September of last year had an unexpected side effect. The process of transporting the painting from its place of origin to point of sale raised awareness that the brotHERhood is alive and well. It encouraged connections, and furthermore highlighted that in time of need, that sense of community, of belonging and what some call second family is still very real.
A relay was organised online by both career and volunteer firefighters from different stations to transport the painting. Ironically the day before the painting’s planned departure, the artist who is also a volunteer firefighter was asked to evacuate her home in the midst of some of the worst bushfires seen in years. In another strange coincidence, the delivery point a hundreds of kilometres away was also affected by some of the worst fires seen in years.
But nothing would stop the plan – exhausted but determined, firefighters took the time out to ensure the painting would make it to its destination. The painting had a dozen stops, and at each stop a photo was taken of the handover and posted on facebook, to keep everyone up to date. Utilizing social media in this way assisted in engaging those who could not physically take part, allowing them to feel a part of the process as well. The painting ended up being purchased by a headquarters brigade, a fitting result considering the heart warming story of determination and collaboration in the midst of two fire emergencies. Here are just a few of the comments of those who took part:
It was a great way to meet some of you, and I’m pretty proud to have had a small hand in one heck of a “painting relay” to get Kristy’s amazing artwork safely into the hands of Behind The Seen, amongst the pandemonium of the bushfire crisis. The BrotHERhood can do amazing things!
It’s not just a painting anymore. That canvas is a part of NSW fire history having travelled from one fireground to another via the men and women fighting said fires during Red October, and it’s a canvas of fire fighters in the heat of battle that went from one fire emergency to another.
It represents 2 services, united for one cause, Behind The Seen. I was honoured to be one of the two that took the painting to its final home.I joined the Rural Fire Service some 23yrs ago to help the community, by assisting with this project I feel that I have also helped to contribute to my fellow emergency service workers by raising awareness of the stresses we all face at times. Would I do it again, hell yes! The fires looked like they might put a bit of a dent in the relay taking place, but in fact I think they actually served to make the whole thing even more meaningful.
This experience illustrates how a simple call for help inspired the brotherhood into action. Perhaps that’s all that is needed. The occasional reminder that this support network, with no geographical boundaries, with people from a variety of backgrounds, socio-economic statuses, religions and cultures can and will be there for each other in times of need. The common bond is that every one of those people is committed to a job that assists their communities to stay safe. In keeping the brotherhood alive, they are looking after their own and their families’ wellbeing.
For social workers, particularly those who work with groups in the community, there are a few lessons in this story:
1) Support networks aren’t always “obvious” to everyone. Sometimes a little education or finding a way to remind people about their support networks needs to be arranged.
2) Sometimes “time” changes the way things work – look for innovative ways to revive interest and commitment to participation in support networks, especially where generational differences come into play
3) Remember to utilize social media as a connector when geographical boundaries place obstacles in the way of participation.
4) In every instance of community work, be open to new possibilities and think beyond the original goal. The original outcome we sought was to raise some funds. We could have just sold the painting online, then posted it to the winning bidder – but would have missed significant outcomes.
5) Expect the unexpected – and go with the flow. Sometimes the unexpected is precisely the thing that will make your project meaningful.
For more information about Behind The Seen go to www.facebook.com/behindtheseenaustralia