Veteran firefighter tells of feeling isolated and ignored after PTSD diagnosis

PAUL Wild’s daily drive to work can often reduce him to tears. The 20-minute commute takes him along the New England Highway, a road dotted with memories of horrific truck and car accidents, of rescues he made and lives that were lost during the decades he worked as a retained firefighter, rescuer and medical first responder.

“I drive from Branxton to Mount Thorley every day, twice a day,” Mr Wild said. “You drive past (the sites of) accident scenes and some days it doesn’t worry you because you’re thinking of something else, but the next day you’ll be driving home and you just sort of look, and you get a bit teary and upset. 

“Some days are good, some days are bad.”

Mr Wild worked for 26 years as a retained firefighter for Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW), based in his hometown of Branxton. Retained firefighters work on-call, balancing the position around the demands of their regular job.  

During his service, Mr Wild’s role evolved from firefighting to rescue and eventually medical first responder – attending accident scenes before paramedics could arrive from neighbouring towns. It was a confronting job, compounded by the harsh, unavoidable reality that came with working in the same community he lived.

“The hard part is when you turn up to an incident and it’s people that you know, it’s people you are acquainted with, it’s little kids and families that you know,” Mr Wild said.

He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2015, two years after he left the fire department due to his deteriorating mental health. Since his departure and diagnosis he has not received any contact from his former employer, a silence that stings after his long service.

“I feel like I never got any proper support or back up that I would expect out of FRNSW,” Mr Wild said. “They just wipe their hands of you – you’re injured, so get out, go away.”

Mr Wild is speaking out about the way his condition was handled by FRNSW, and sharing his personal struggle in the hope others fighting with demons will gain the courage to seek help.

While he believed his PTSD was simmering undiagnosed for many years, it was two horrific fatal accidents, days apart and both involving people known to him, that tipped him over the edge.

He was called to a crash on the highway in 2011, where he spent hours working with other emergency crews to free and revive a woman. She later died, along with two others who were in the vehicle.

“I didn’t recognise any of them when I arrived … you go in there with tunnel vision,” Mr Wild said.

“I went home and my daughter said ‘Dad, do you know who that was in the car?’ and I said ‘I’ve no idea, sweetheart’ and it turned out it was four local ladies, all in their eighties and they had just finished church … and the lady I was working on, assisting with the paramedics and doctors, was very, very close and known to me,” he said.

“I was shattered. Absolutely shattered. I took two weeks off. The doctor didn’t want me to go back but I thought, ‘I’m tough, I can handle it’, so I went back.”

Mr Wild’s first call-out after his return was another fatality, a four-wheel-drive had gone under a truck. 

“The driver was killed instantly,” Mr Wild said. “The blokes said ‘do you recognise that car’ and I said ‘I have seen it around’ and they told me the person’s name and … I used to train soccer with him.”

Mr Wild then broke down.

“I just went off the rails. I used to just cry for hours and hours and hours. I had about six months off from the fire brigade. I was drinking a hell of a lot more and I would just break down. I just couldn’t cope."

He eventually returned to the job, but his ability to focus in emergencies was not what it had been. 

“I stayed there for two years after I went back but I was making mistakes, I was irritable, angry,” he said.

“I would turn up when I wanted to turn up, not when I should be turning up. The last call I went to I stuffed up and … I thought, well that’s enough for me. 

“My mind wasn’t there, my heart wasn’t there and once your heart is not there, you may as well not be there.”

After he was diagnosed with PTSD and on the insistence of his worried family who had watched him deteriorate, he contacted the fire department to seek help.

“I tried to fight it, he said. “I thought I can handle this, and mentally I couldn’t. It doesn’t go away.

”I rang FRNSW and told them what was going on and they weren’t any help whatsoever. 

“They said ‘well the case has been closed’. They didn’t give me any assistance at all. I ended up having to ring the insurer myself to get the case reopened.”

Mr Wild has been receiving treatment through insurer EMI as part of the workers’ compensation system. He praised the way EMI helped him, but slammed the lack of support from FRNSW.

“They have not rang me once. Not once,” Mr Wild said. “I hear it’s policy not to contact people while they are on workers’ comp,” he said, resulting in feelings of isolation and not being supported.

A FRNSW spokesperson said injured employees were “regularly contacted” by managers.

The spokesperson said the organisation was committed to providing early intervention to PTSD, and had implemented a mental health policy promoting awareness, prevention, response and support.

“The organisation manages both the general mental health of employees and coordinates targeted responses to exposures to traumatic incidents,” FRNSW said.

“Employees are provided education on how to manage their own mental health as well as access to various support services including employee assistance program (and the) peer support network, which is comprised of more than 80 firefighters and officers who visit stations to deliver mental health education sessions and follow-up after traumatic incidents.”

Mr Wild said he recalls debriefs after critical incidents, but questioned their usefulness.

“For major incidents they would get in critical incident response people … and all they would do is stand up and tell us their hard luck stories,” he said. “We didn’t need to hear that.”

The FRNSW spokesperson said the organisation had implemented a world-first training program for managers on mental health, designed in conjunction with the Black Dog Institute, and all new recruits underwent a mental health awareness program.

“FRNSW was also a pivotal member of the NSW Mental Health Committee that assisted in the development of the Mental Health and Wellbeing Strategy for First Responders and the development of the Stories From the Front Line: supporting the mental wellbeing of first responders in NSW (video).”

Approximately half of FRNSW fire stations across NSW were staffed by retained firefighters, the spokesperson said.

“These retained firefighters are often members of the local community and the first responders to incidents. Managers and supervisors of these predominately regional stations ensure that the appropriate post-incident follow up is conducted and employees are provided with relevant and appropriate support services.”

Mr Wild said life with PTSD improved once he was diagnosed, and encouraged anyone who felt something was not right to get help.

“Without my wife and kids pushing it, I probably wouldn’t have done it but I am pleased I have done it,” Mr Wild said.

“I was embarrassed about telling people I had PTSD because it’s a disease and no one will want to have anything to do with me, but now I don’t care. 

“I tell everybody, I let everybody know because they may be struggling. 

“I want to tell other retained firefighters, I want them to know if you are struggling, put your hand up because there are people that will listen.”