PTSD – the hidden price of emergency work

Last month the Winnipeg firefighters’ union launched a website dedicated to supporting firefighters and first responders with post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

This topic is growing in interest among first responder communities around the world  – exemplified by the popularity of this song about PTSD  by Canadian firefighter Kevin Davison – ‘When those sirens are gone’ ; it had over 117,00 views on social media since its internet release in November 2014.

As with all illnesses, not everyone is affected the same way, and people are affected to different degrees. In order to understand why these differences occur, a team of researchers led by psychologist Dr Einat Levy-Gigi conducted a study of 69 active firefighters with differing duty-related trauma exposure, and evaluated their PTSD symptoms.  This Huffington Post article discusses the research; the abstract for the study can be found here.

PTSD is a condition that can easily occur in the context of emergency service work. As the NZ Mental Health Foundation points out,

“Any situation where there was a risk of being killed or injured, seeing others killed or injured, or sometimes even hearing about such things, can result in PTSD.”

These situations are business-as-usual for first responders, and if PTSD arises the toll it takes can be immense and under-acknowledged.

Hoarding – a lethal habit

Hoarding disorder was classified as an illness in the most recent Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM5), which defines it as

‘the persistent difficulty discarding or parting with possessions, regardless of the value others may attribute to these possessions.’

It goes on to state that:

‘These behaviors can often be quite severe and even threatening. Beyond the mental impact of the disorder, the accumulation of clutter can create a public health issue by completely filling people’s homes and creating fall and fire hazards.’

Last month, Atlantic magazine drew attention to the fire risks of hoarding in a feature article which opens with the death of a US firefighter trapped by piles of accumulated material in a residential home.  The article points out that the risk is not only to firefighters:

“Among the condition’s many devastating mental and physical consequences is that it can the sufferer more likely to die in a fire. Clutter can block exits and trip residents when they try to escape. Boxes and papers act like kindling, making a fire rage more intensely.”

It is an issue that fire organisations around the world are trying to address.  Some, such as the Metropolitan Fire Brigade in Melbourne, the UK London Fire Brigade, and the US National Fire Protection Association provide guide sheets on hoarding, aimed at helping families to understand the issues and to find ways of helping.  The Chief Fire Officers Association (UK) provided this list of myth-busters around hoarding during their Hoarding Awareness week in 2014.

Some fire personnel in the US are joining ‘hoarding task forces’ which are multi-agency groups consisting of health, social, and emergency service representatives that work together to address the emotional, health, and safety issues associated with hoarding.

Fire brigade histories – a publishing checklist

A published history of your fire brigade is a precious document – not just for your brigade and your community, but for the whole of New Zealand’s research community, now and in the future.

So, when you publish, make sure you …

  • Reach the right people
  • Check copyright requirements
  • Tap into existing sources on NZ history

Check out this one-page guide (Fire brigade histories – publication) to make sure that your publication is the best it can be, and that it gets noticed by the widest possible audience.

Students and fire risk

In our last blog we looked at the older community, a vulnerable group in terms of fire risk.

Another vulnerable group is young people – school leavers and students, those who have just entered adulthood and independent living.

As Ian Lambie et al. point out in this recent research from Auckland University  [abstract only],

“18–24 year olds are at risk due to membership in high risk groups [such as] renting,crowded housing, socio-economic status, substance use and smoking.”

Student vulnerability in rental accommodation is also reported in research commissioned this year by UK safety charity Electrical Safety First (press release).  The National Union of Students (NUS) surveyed over 1100 students in rented accommodation.  Reported problems included unfixed exposed wiring, unresolved issues of damp or water around the electrics, ignored scorching around sockets and light fittings, and problems with broken, damaged or overheating appliances supplied with the property. Most of these stem from landlord negligence rather than student behaviour.

Students in hostels and halls of residence are similarly vulnerable, mostly due to risky activities, according to this 2013 research commissioned by UK insurer, Zurich Municipal (Press release).  The report’s findings include:

‘two thirds of students (66%) have cooked after midnight and one in two (50%) have done so under the influence of alcohol, but a significant number (33%) aren’t aware of the fire safety procedures in their halls….  43% admitting they dry clothes over a heater or radiator, 24% often burning candles or incense and 43% doing all of this while also storing alcohol in their student room.’

In response, the insurers created this mnemonic for a STUDENT to manage fire risk:

Snack smart: get a takeaway or cold snack if you are planning a big night out.

Turn off: …cooking appliances, hair straighteners, mobile phone chargers

Unclog your sockets: overloading electrical sockets can be a common source for fires.

Dry safely: Covering lamps or heaters with clothes or fabrics is a major fire risk.

Escape route: be aware of where the fire exits are.

No naked flames: Remember to put out cigarettes properly, take care using candles

Test your smoke detector: test your smoke detector regularly.

Fire risk management in ageing populations

A recent update from Statistics New Zealand shows that our population is getting older:  the 65+ age group has nearly doubled since 1981.

This demographic change has a flow-on effect on the types of dwellings and residences that people choose. Statistics NZ data shows that 32,000 older NZers now live in residential care.

What are the implications of these changes, for fire risk management?

NZ Fire Service recently commissioned research surveying older people’s knowledge, attitudes and behaviour towards home security and fire risk management. This research, published in 2015, can be viewed here.

Other countries with ageing populations are also looking into this issue:

This February 2015 article looks at trends in Japan in the dwelling types of elderly people and the risk of death due to fire in these settings.  The author points out that,

“In Japan, approximately 1,400 people die annually in fires (excluding suicide by fire). The ratio of people aged 65 years or older accounts for approximately 60% of these fire fatalities.”

He notes the rise in the number of nursing homes for the elderly and states:

“Even with some improvements to fire safety equipment in these facilities, there remains the problem of how to provide fire safety for elderly people who may find evacuation difficult.”

This detailed and technical article looks at the Canadian elderly residential care situation. These authors also point out the difficulties of evacuation in these settings and argue in favour of retro-fitting sprinklers. They provide a case study of such a project.

Wild fires a hot issue around the world

Wildfires are a regular concern in rural New Zealand, and they can cost us around $100 million a year.

Research published last month in Nature Communications suggests that wildfires may be on the increase globally, as a result of climate change.  Looking at trends from 1979 to 2013, the authors state that,

“fire weather seasons have lengthened across 29.6 million km2 (25.3%) of the Earth’s vegetated surface, resulting in an 18.7% increase in global mean fire weather season length and … a doubling (108.1%increase) of global burnable area affected by long fire weather seasons.”

They also warn:

“If these fire weather changes are coupled with ignition sources and available fuel, they could markedly impact global ecosystems, societies, economies and climate.”

John Bailey, Associate Professor of Silviculture and Fire Management at Oregon State University acknowledges this increase in this 11 August article.  He raises the issue of “good” wildfire versus “bad” wildfire, and argues the need for active management of fire in forests, if this global trend is to be contained and managed.

“Rise of the Machine” – the use of drones in emergency services

The US National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) wrote about the growing potential for drones in emergency services, in the Jul/Aug issue of their magazine.

These vehicles are also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Unmanned Aerial Systems (AUS) Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS), and have potential value across a range of industries. In the firefighting space, to quote the article author Jesse Roman,

 “How useful would it be if a drone could fly into a burning building, locate victims, quickly create a three-dimensional floor scan of the structure, and transmit that information to firefighters outside?”

In New Zealand, discussion is already under way about the use of drones in emergency contexts:

UAV use in rural firefighting was on the schedule at the May 2015 Christchurch conference, ‘Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – a view to the future’ (Schedule only; the proceedings not available through this site, but authors are listed).

In March this year NZ Land Search and Rescue (LandSAR) teamed up with Australian UAV company Flirtey to trial drone capability in searching for a missing person near Lake Roxburgh and delivering medical supplies. Flirtey Chief Executive Matthew Sweeny describes the company’s NZ trials as “a complete success.”

Meanwhile, The Civil Aviation Authority has launched new rules for these increasingly common vehicles, effective from 1 August 2015.

Whakanuia Te Wiki o te Reo Māori 2015

Celebrate Maori language week!

Try some of these free resources to get going in Te Reo, or get more practice

You can improve your pronounciation

Watch some Maori TV or listen to Iwi radio in your area

Say ‘kia ora’ when greeting people – your colleagues, family and friends.

Try a phrase of the week

The NZFS takes pride in service to our communities.  Learning more Te Reo is a great way to connect.   Check out the E Puta! E Noho ki Waho! A pre-school fire safety resource – Currently being delivered to each Kohanga Reo around the country.

Fiskville – Independent monitor of CFA

The Independent Monitor – Fiskville was appointed in February 2013 to monitor CFA’s progress in implementing Robert Joy report.  CFA is committed to implementing the 10 recommendations.  This reports shows the agency has acted on 9 of the 10.

Independent Monitor – Fiskville Report, July 2015

Firefighters doing practical drills at the Fiskville training centre  between 1970’s and 1990’s were exposed to harmful chemicals.

Fiskville recommendations

The latest report on the Fiskville training centre from the Victorian parliamentary inquiry was released on 24 June. The inquiry was set up to examine pollution and contamination activities at CFA Training College between 1970 and 1990.

“The interim report from the Environment, Natural Resources and Regional Development Committee recommended that the Victorian Government:

  • Oversee thorough testing of soil and water, including tank water, on adjoining or relevant properties to the CFA training college at Fiskville to determine any immediate risks, and consider what needs to be done if affected people cannot sell their livestock or produce
  • Assess the feasibility of providing voluntary testing for PFOS free of charge to firefighters – career and volunteer – current and former staff at Fiskville, other trainees, and people who live or have lived on neighbouring properties
  • Ensures that any person who seeks records and documents relating to their involvement with Fiskville is able to do so from government agencies and departments without hindrance.”

Read more

Environment, Natural Resources and Regional Development Committee  – Fiskville enquiry

Inquiry into the CFA Training College at Fiskville Interim report

Fiskville investigation – CFA


Interim report on Australia’s toxic fire training college (29 June)

Fiskville report: Dangerous toxins testing required around CFA training base, 24 June
ABC online

Fiskville boss ignored the risks, got promoted, says fire fighter, 15 June
Melbourne Age