Volunteers’ wellbeing in times of disaster

Fire crews take a moment’s rest as conditions ease on a fire surrounding a property in Colo Heights, New South Wales. Photo: Getty Images
Fire crews take a moment’s rest as conditions ease on a fire surrounding a property in Colo Heights, New South Wales. Photo: Getty Images
As bushfires intensify, acknowledgement needs to be made of  the strain on volunteers, writes Blythe McLennan.

The early and ferocious start to the bushfire season in Australia this year has raised questions about the impact on those at the front line — the tens of thousands of volunteers helping to put out the blazes.

In Australia, the vast majority of bushfire fighters are volunteers. In the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, for instance, volunteers account for 89% of the workforce.

And with fire seasons due to become longer and bushfires more intense due to the impacts of climate change, this will place even more demands on the men and women undertaking this vital and demanding work.

Given this, it's important for us to understand how our worsening bushfires are affecting the mental and physical health of volunteers. Is this causing burnout? And if so, is that making it more difficult for fire and emergency services to recruit new volunteers and keep the ones they have?

Of course, the impact of today's bushfires needs to be viewed within the context of other challenges to volunteer recruitment and retention.

Two of the key factors are greater competition for people's time — for example, due to changes in the nature of paid work — and the increasing difficulty of balancing work, family and volunteer commitments.

The ways people choose to volunteer are also changing. Many people are choosing more flexible, shorter-term and cause-driven ways of volunteering and eschewing the kind of structured, high-commitment volunteering that is common in the emergency services.

At the same time, rural communities are facing a shrinking volunteer base as people either leave for better opportunities in cities or can no longer perform strenuous volunteering roles.

Meanwhile, a lot has been said about younger generations being less motivated by altruistic values to volunteer.

However, there is considerable evidence that younger people are highly committed to making a positive contribution to society. They are just doing it differently than their parents; they are tapping into the power of social media and working outside of formal, structured organisations.

Changes to emergency management services are also at play. One of the most significant shifts has been the professionalisation, corporatisation and modernisation of volunteer-based emergency services in recent years.

While this has undeniably brought improvements to volunteer safety and the quality of service, it has also caused headaches for volunteers in the form of more bureaucracy and additional training requirements.

There is a risk this could drive a wedge between the corporate goals of fire and emergency service agencies that focus on risk management and efficiency, for example, and their more traditional, community-based roots the reason many people choose to volunteer in the first place.

This type of volunteering can be demanding. Bushfire volunteers face a range of significant stresses that can be physical, mental and emotional. There are also economic burdens for both volunteers and their employers, as well as strains on their family members.

Additionally, with the likelihood of more intense bushfires in the future, volunteers will increasingly be asked to travel outside their own communities to fight fires in other regions, further complicating their lives.

Having said this, support for volunteers is available and improving. In my ongoing research with other academics at the Bushfire and Natural Hazard co-operative Research Centre, interviewees report improvements in operational equipment, technology and procedures that are enhancing volunteer safety.

Emergency services are also increasing mental health and wellbeing support for volunteers and developing more diverse and flexible ways for people to fit volunteering into their lives. There is also a strong commitment to improving diversity and inclusion across the sector.

Even though fighting fires is obviously demanding work, it is also extremely fulfilling and rewarding. Core reasons that people choose to volunteer include helping the community, learning new skills, feeling useful and doing something worthwhile, and experiencing camaraderie with others.

In our ongoing research, we are consistently hearing that the personal fulfilment and rewards of volunteering are not being adequately communicated to the public. If they were, a lot more people would offer their services.

In addition, many volunteering roles do not require people to be on the front lines at all.

There are a large number of opportunities to support fire prevention, response and recovery well beyond the fires themselves.

If we are fighting bushfires into the next decade with the same or declining numbers of volunteers, using the same approaches we use today, then clearly the job will be much harder and the demands on volunteers will become more extreme.

The key variable that will make the most difference for volunteers is the willingness and commitment of emergency services, governments, society and volunteers themselves to embrace change to current practices.

This includes a greater investment in risk reduction, new operational approaches and involving volunteers more in organisational decision-making. Emergency services providers should also be working more closely with community organisations to better understand and target the particular needs of different communities.

Whatever choices we make, we cannot leave it to our frontline volunteers to bear an increasing burden of fighting the bushfires of the future. — theconversation.com

Blythe McLennan is a research fellow at the Centre for Urban Research, RMIT University

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