When bushfires raged through the farms and small townships of East Gippsland in February, everyone in the community felt the impact. Many played a part in the emergency response, even as their own homes were burning. Behind those on the frontline, others played the vital role of providing support and counselling. Now, after the smoke has lifted, the outside emergency teams have gone home and the physical damage has been counted, the emotional impact takes its toll. Now is when people realise just how exhausted they are.
On Wednesday, 21 May, a seminar will be held in Orbost to give those involved in the emergency response a chance to take stock and focus on their own well-being.
Leading the workshop will be Rev Dr Stephen Robinson, an expert in Emergency Ministry and the National Disaster Recovery Officer for the Uniting Church Assembly. Rev Dr Robinson will speak about self care and how to cope in the aftermath of trauma and hardship.
Frontier Services Snowy River Patrol Minister Rev Rowena Harris, who is based in Orbost, said the seminar was open to anyone involved in disaster management in recent months.
Rev Harris was overseas when the fires broke out and parts of Orbost were evacuated but went straight into action on her return, providing emotional support to those affected.
“Being a small town, people have to depend on each other. People were utterly exhausted, yet at the same time, utterly committed to helping each other out,” said Rev Harris.
“There were a lot of lay (unordained) chaplains who participated in a training course late last year. I don’t think they expected to be using those skills so soon, but they sure did need them.”
“Now the long-term recovery has started. I can see how exhausted people are but they have to keep on going because it is their community.”
During this and other disasters, Rev Harris said people survived on adrenalin, but when the adrenalin goes, people realised they were suffering too.
“People work extra hard and get physically exhausted, but they also get emotionally exhausted. It’s called ‘compassion fatigue’. Basically it’s when you get to a point where you find it really hard to keep on being nice.”
The seminar would look at how to overcome compassion fatigue and prevent burnout and depression.
“Folk who give a lot need to be looked after too,” Rev Harris added.
The event is open to people across the region who been impacted by disaster in recent months. The fires covered a significant area of Victoria, and a lot of people from southern NSW helped out. At the same time people were battling with the fire at the coal mine in Morwell. A local taskforce has already started looking at ways for the community to overcome ‘compassion fatigue’. Some activities have included community BBQs and pamper days.