Supporting volunteer firefighter well-being: Lessons from the Australian "Black Summer" bushfires

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Title

Prehospital and Disaster Medicine


Cambridge University Press


School of Medical and Health Sciences




Smith, E., Holmes, L., Larkin, B., Mills, B., & Dobson, M. (2022). Supporting volunteer firefighter well-being: Lessons from the Australian "Black Summer" bushfires. Prehospital and Disaster Medicine, 37(2), 273-276. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1049023X22000322


Introduction: The 2019-2020 "Black Summer"bushfires in Australia focused the attention of the nation on the critical role that volunteer firefighters play in the response to such a disaster, spurring a national conversation about how to best support those on the frontline. The objective of this research was to explore the impact of the Black Summer bushfires on volunteer firefighter well-being and to investigate how to deliver effective well-being support. Methods: An explorative qualitative design underpinned by a phenomenological approach was applied. Participant recruitment followed a multi-modal sampling strategy and data were collected through semi-structured, in-depth interviews. Results: Qualitative data were collected from 58 participants aged from 23 to 61-years-of-age (average age of 46 years). All self-reported as volunteer firefighters who had responded to the Black Summer bushfires in Australia. Just over 80% of participants were male and the majority lived in the Australian states of New South Wales (65%) and Victoria (32%). All participants reported impact on their well-being, resulting from cumulative trauma exposure, responding to fires in local communities, intense work demands, minimal intervals between deployments, and disruption to primary employment. In regard to supporting well-being, four key themes emerged from data analysis: (1) Well-being support needs to be both proactive and reactive and empower local leaders to "reach in"while encouraging responders to "reach out;"(2) Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) should not be the only well-being support option available; (3) The sharing of lived experience is important; and (4) Support programs need to address self-stigmatization. Conclusion: Participants in this research identified that effective well-being support needs to be both proactive and reactive and holistic in approach.



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