Join the CFA Connect forum to discuss local knowledge
The program started out 15 years ago as support following critical incidents. “We found out there were people on the fireground with personal problems in their mind,” explains Pat. “They were putting everyone in danger. When we started out we were called the tissue brigade, but people have become a lot more open than they were
“Over time, CFA saw that we were doing more one-on-one family talks and they came on board. It was Linton, unfortunately, that put the program on the map.”
What part does local knowledge play in her role? “I know most of the players in District 13,” says Pat. “They know me. I’m a straight shooter and they know I’m passionate about the job.
“Local knowledge means networking to empower people to gain control of their lives. CFA will pay for some sessions of financial counselling, marriage guidance or with a psychologist and we always use local people.
“One of our courses for peers is about networking. We tell the peers to go and visit their local Relationships Australian office, for example. Did you feel welcome?
“If a family is struggling with an autism diagnosis or someone in the family has multiple sclerosis, we have people they can talk to.”
The District 13 peers meet once a month with guest speakers invited to discuss topics ranging from palliative care through a wide range of health conditions. The group has had visitors from Rwanda a nd,alternately, a man and a woman talking about Islam.
While there are 14 peers in District 13, Pat emphasises that there are no boundaries in the peer team with Districts 8, 12, 13 and 14 working particularly closely. “We go to where we’re needed,” she says. “In 2009, I had peers from all over the state on the mountain."
Pat emphasises the do-it-yourself nature of the peer’s support into families. “We need the person in trouble to make the first call, otherwise they’re not ready. When we’re activated, it’s because someone’s hurting. We don’t self-activate and we don’t make decisions for people.
“The value comes from people telling their story to someone not connected with the issue, but it’s not a passive listening process. People want a solution.
“We say, ‘Have you thought of this or that?’ It’s an information line. We support them down an avenue that can help them, then they make any appointments. They choose the help and we’ll go along with them if they want.”
While legislation demands that peers pass on information about family violence and threats of self harm, everything else is confidential. “People can get out their frustration and anger,” explains Pat, “and what’s told to us stays with us.”
Pat and the other peers regularly travel into Melbourne for hospital visits and always arrive at the Royal Children’s Hospital with CFA caps and teddy bears.
She’s proud of one peer with no background in farming whatsoever. “He always takes in Stock and Land and The Weekly Times as an icebreaker and now he can talk about cropping, shearing…you name it!
“We can sit down and talk CFA. They can grumble about their brigade and they’re so chuffed. They know where you’re coming from and it takes them out of that medical world. We’re there as a release valve and we’re very unique in that.”
The peer program sits under the operational arm of CFA and under logistics in an ICC. The work directly and personally achieves the CFA mission to protect lives and property.
“We’ve come such a long way,” says Pat. “Now we’re teaching self care and resilience to our brigades and people are so much more aware. Our new recruits are learning early on that there’s a welfare team available if you or your immediate family need it.
“Our awareness information nights at brigades are open to families and that’s where we can reach the families of older members and let them know we’re available to them too. CFA is not just taking your partners away for hours at a time.
“Sometimes we might say to a client, ‘What about you have some time out from volunteering?’ It might be just what they need – to take a break from the huge commitment that CFA can be. People can take some time out and come back when the time’s right.
“It’s called the peer program but, really, it’s a family. We are One CFA.”