Australia

Ex-fire chief voices concern about mental health of volunteer firefighters

South Coast residents were stuck on the Princes Highway on Thursday night during a mass evacuation. Source: AAP

Former Fire and Rescue NSW commissioner Greg Mullins warns volunteer fireys are worn out, stressing concerns for their welfare and mental health.

Former Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Greg Mullins warns volunteer firefighters are exhausted and he is concerned for their welfare and general wellbeing.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison reiterated Australia's "standing volunteer force" is capable of seeing off an unprecedented bushfire season and shut down the possibility of paying them, but the former fire chief stresses that many are worn out and already on their knees.

RFS volunteers and NSW Fire and Rescue officers fight a bushfire encroaching on properties.

Mr Mullins is no longer commissioner but still travelled to help fight a blaze at Mangrove Mountain on the NSW Central Coast. 

An emergency warning was issued on Tuesday as almost 3,000 fireys battled more than 80 bushfires across the state, with half of them still uncontained.

Australian Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese met with former chief of NSW Fire and Rescue Greg Mullins earlier this month.
Australian Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese met with former chief of NSW Fire and Rescue Greg Mullins earlier this month.
AAP

Crews are working 12-hour shifts and travelling two hours each way to reach fire grounds, meaning they are working 16 hour days.

"Everyone is getting pretty worn out and, in my experience, that's where all the bad stuff happens," he told AAP.

"The troops, if they're worn out, you get to a stage where it just overwhelms everyone, so that's a worry."

Mr Mullins - who was the FRNSW boss from 2003 to 2017 - said early in the season firefighters were full of energy but as the weeks and months dragged on they reached a point of having "nothing in the tank".

"I'm buggered ... and I haven't done as many (shifts) as some people," he said.

"People will step up. Firefighters are men and women who give their all - they will do whatever is asked of them and more, but I do fear for their welfare."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison addresses the media at Kirribilli House.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison addresses the media at Kirribilli House.
AAP

Mr Morrison meanwhile held a press conference in a Sydney skyscraper on Tuesday with smoke obscuring the harbour views, praising the efforts of volunteers battling blazes across the country.

 

"I was speaking with the (NSW RFS) commissioner on the weekend out at Wilberforce - where we have the mega-fire out in the northwest at the moment - we were talking through the crew rotations and the fact is that these crews, yes they're tired, but they also want to be out there defending their communities," he told reporters.

"We do all we can to rotate the shifts to give them those breaks but equally, in many cases, you've got to hold them back to make sure they get that rest. I thank them all for what they're doing."

NSW firefighters preparing to tackle high fire danger regions.

The prime minister dismissed the idea of paying volunteer firefighters.

"We are constantly looking at ways we can better facilitate the volunteer effort but to professionalise that, at that scale, is not a matter that has previously been accepted and is not a matter that's currently under consideration by the government," he said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison comforts a man evacuated from the bushfires in NSW.

Mr Mullins said as the bushfire season continued and volunteers kept requesting time off work their employers would start saying: "Hey we've got a business to run." 

Agencies such as Fire and Rescue NSW and the National Parks and Wildlife Service had a limited pool of people to call on and "they'll all be feeling the same thing", the ex-fire chief said.

With wires...

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