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AWU firies stepping up to fundraise for mental health

September 8, 2022

The only way is up this Saturday when four AWU members take part in the gruelling Melbourne Firefighter Stair Climb.

The four – Jess Willan, Nicholas Panuccio, Natasha Brown and James Ryan – are members of a Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) Forest and Fire Operations crew in Benalla.

DELWP forest and fire operations staff deliver forest management activities in Victoria’s state forests and undertake fire management and firefighting activities in Victoria’s national parks, state forests and protected public land.

Jess, who is also the crew’s Health and Safety Representative, says the four will join more than 600 state firefighters and emergency service personnel by climbing the 28 floors of the Crown Metropol Hotel.

“The climb started in 2014 as a memorial to 9/11 and the 343 fire fighters who died there,” Jess says.

“It’s now being used to support mental health awareness and this year the aim is to raise raise $600,000 for Lifeline, Fortem and the 000 Foundation.”

The Benalla crew’s team target was about $2000, but so far they have already raised more than $5000.

Saturday will be no fun run, with the stair climbers expected to carry about 25kg of their normal work equipment.

“For training we have been running up and down the grandstand in Benalla with 20kg weights, doing 5km runs and weight training, together when we can or individually,” Jess says.

“And when we do the climb we will be carrying up chain saws and axes, to match the Fire and Rescue Victoria crews, who will be wearing their full breathing apparatus kits and masks.”

Money raised from the climb will go to improve support services, fund research, remove stigmas and raise awareness of mental health issues such as depression, post-traumatic stress injury and suicide, especially for those within the emergency service and defence communities.

AWU Victorian Branch Secretary Ben Davis commends the Ballina team for their efforts. ““The AWU has always believed that Forest Firefighters are amongst the toughest of the tough and the fittest of the fit,” he says.

“Their participation in the firefighter stair climb proves that beyond a doubt.”

Benalla team member James Ryan, an AWU delegate and assistant HSR, says he is keen to take part in the stair challenge and help promote the vital cause at the same time.

“I’m pretty fit, active and healthy, do obstacle-course racing and crazy 24-hour enduros, so I like to put myself thorough these sorts of things,” he says.

“And I have had my own issues in the past and like to promote mental health and help get the word out there.”

James is a keen supporter of WorkWell, a project based on an RMIT study of AWU members, which examines significant contributors to DELWP workers’ mental health and well-being.

It is hoped WorkWell will lead to some concrete outcomes, including two intervention programs.

The first, a pilot program with DELWP that is almost finalised, will look at the consequences of medical downgrades for firefighters who risk or have lost their firefighting role due to a reclassification.

James says that DELWP workers can face significant obstacles and challenges if they lose their firefighter classification. What the WorkWell research has shown is that a reclassification may also be a result of ongoing workplace stressors, so it is a double penalty.

“We have to do regular medicals, and if we are deemed medically unfit face disadvantages through things such as loss of overtime and not being able to go on the fire line.”

The program will involve 20 volunteers who have been or may be medically downgraded, who will participate in a pilot that will map their skills, assess training needs and assign a coach to work with them to identify possible career alternatives to active firefighting.

The second intervention – Training and Career Development for Firefighters – involved months of work, including a workshop that included the AWU, DELWP, RMIT and WorkWell.

Participants signed off on a broad proposal to look at gaps in training for firefighters.

The issue has now been referred to a project steering committee which consists of two AWU representatives and Kelly Crosthwaite and Daniel Van Oosterwijck from DELWP.

You can support the DELWP Benalla team’s Melbourne Firefighter Stair Climb fundraising effort by clicking here.


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