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Frontline responders a priority in bushfire impact funding

Wednesday 15, Apr 2020

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The Australian Government is investing $5 million via the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) for nine research projects that will investigate the physiological and mental health effects of the recent bushfires. “The devastating bushfire events have warranted concerns about the medium-term health impacts of exposure to ash and smoke haze, reduced air quality and ongoing mental health stresses,” Greg Hunt, Minister for Health, said. “The government is taking a proactive approach to understand the potential medical and mental health needs of frontline responders and affected communities under two major research streams.”

Researchers funded through the first stream of the MRFF program “will study the physiological impacts of prolonged bushfire smoke exposure”, Hunt said. This will include a project led by Professor Raina MacIntyre of the University of New South Wales, whose team “will run a randomised controlled trial to determine the impact of mask use on respiratory outcomes during the bushfire season”, Hunt said. Importantly, “measures employed to reduce exposure to hazardous smoke and the effectiveness of exposure reduction methods will also be studied”, Hunt said.

Researchers in the second stream of funded projects will investigate mental health impacts of bushfires. This will include a project by Associate Professor David Lawrence of the University of Western Australia (UWA) that investigates the ongoing wellbeing and resilience of Australia’s frontline responders following the 2019/20 bushfires. “Understanding the lived experience and strategies used by people to cope during these times will help preparedness planning for communities in future bushfire events,” Hunt said about this stream.

Frontline responders: UWA study

“Cumulative exposure to traumatic events can negatively affect the wellbeing of those called on to respond to critical incidents and emergencies,” Associate Professor Lawrence said about the context for his study. “The unprecedented intensity and severity of the 2019/20 bushfires may have adversely impacted the wellbeing of some of those who responded, many of whom are volunteers.”

The MRFF funding will be used to build on an earlier project, also led by Associate Professor Lawrence. “In 2017/18 the University of Western Australia undertook ‘Answering the Call: the first National Mental Health and Wellbeing Study of Emergency Services’, funded by Beyond Blue and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre,” he said. “Answering the Call surveyed over 21,000 first responders, including over 5000 rural fire service and SES volunteers.”

In building on this earlier project, Associate Professor Lawrence will “evaluate both shorter and longer term impacts by surveying first responders again in 2020 and 2021”. The study will set out to “measure wellbeing, resilience and need for and use of support services, as well as cultural and organisational factors that may affect wellbeing”, he explained. “The survey data will be supplemented by a series of focus groups in communities most affected by the fires in order to further draw out our understanding of their impacts.”

The Answering the Call study had found that: “It is not just the cumulative exposure to traumatic events but the way that workplaces and organisations respond to them that can impact the wellbeing of employees and volunteers,” Associate Professor Lawrence said. “Workplaces that are supportive and inclusive, have regular discussions about occupational experiences and effectively manage emotional demands on staff have lower rates of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] and psychological distress.”

Through this new project, Associate Professor Lawrence said he and his team will “seek to identify key gaps in knowledge in how to foster resilience and coping, and how to effectively deliver support services when required. We will work with our partners including the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, fire and emergency services agencies in Australia and Beyond Blue to ensure the information gained is fed into the development of strategies and programs to most effectively support the wellbeing of Australia’s first responders.”

Significance of the announcement amid COVID-19

In his statement, Hunt acknowledged the benefit that funding programs such as this one bring amid the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. “The government acknowledges the significant impact of COVID-19 on the health and medical research sector, which is critical for longer term health outcomes, jobs and economic growth,” he said. “This research will help Australia remain at the forefront of preparedness and recovery in the event of natural disasters, including bushfires.

“I am pleased to announce that funding continues to be available for life-saving research such as on the impacts of bushfires. In addition, the Australian Government has invested over $36 million in research for COVID-19, including on diagnostics, vaccines, antivirals, respiratory medicine clinical trials and for evidence-based guidelines,” Hunt concluded.

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