NSW Ambulance paramedics and Illawarra-based police take part in a paintball competition organised by Fortem this past May.

Support for NSW Ambulance first responders and their families has never been as crucial as it is now.

From uncertainty to isolation, COVID-19 - along with the unrelated incidents our first responders are confronted with on a regular basis – can at times have a detrimental effect on mental health.

Thankfully, NSW Ambulance has a number of external services – as well as internal services such as its own Family Support Network - at its disposal who are there to offer support.

One of those is Fortem Australia. Co-founded by John Bale two years ago, Fortem is somewhat unique from other not-for-profit support services in that its mental health and wellbeing support for first responders extends to, and focuses on, their families as well.

For John, it’s critical families are supported in order to benefit both them and the first responders they care for.

“As the general community feels the stress of what is going on (with COVID-19), NSW Ambulance is right at the tip of that pressure because they get to live with all of the pressure that everybody is going through so far as COVID-19, and on top of that have to respond to all of the health-related issues that are occurring,” he said.

“Our focus on families is going to build a more resilient workforce because they are the ones who see the cracks appear at the very early stages, but also family members are the ones that then can create that safer space to be able to talk about these things that are creating issues.

“Also, families can put in place the routines and support that can make sure first responders focus on mental fitness, social connection, exercise, nutrition, sleep etc.

“I think families are going to be a critical component more than ever right now.”

Fortem has been proactive in organising events where families and emergency services workers can come together.

Across NSW, wellbeing activities, including surfing, organised walks, coffee catch-ups, putt putt golf and yoga have been run through Fortem. They’re fun, free, plentiful and available to all NSW Ambulance first responders (as well as other emergency services first responders).

Thank A First Responder Day and International Family Day are other events Fortem has helped organise. “It’s all about providing opportunities for people to connect which then gives them opportunities to speak to others who go through a shared experience,” John said.

“And all of the research shows, people who have a network they trust are much better when it comes to handling trauma or stress.”

A paramedic putting a band-aid on a child's hand at a recent International Family Day event.

NSW Ambulance’s Family Support, Staff Health Project Officer Zoe Woolbridge said Fortem’s wellbeing activities offered great benefits for our first responders to improve their mental health, while in the company of family members and other first responders.

“An example is a recent International Family Day event in Appin, where staff and their families reported feeling uplifted and more connected while taking part in the event and spending time with their loved ones,” she said.

“When chatting to colleagues at the event’s NSW Ambulance Family Support Network information booth it was evident that families appreciated the collaboration between NSW Ambulance and Fortem Australia.

“Families said they were pleasantly surprised to learn about all the staff support available for their loved ones, and for the families as well.

“Family members also expressed gratitude at feeling included and informed, especially about early warning signs and what to look out for in their first responder loved one and in themselves.”

Another key support service Fortem is planning on rolling out in the near future is a transition program, which will assist emergency services workers in transitioning to retirement or a new career.

Earlier this year the organisation also launched Peak Fortem – a free, online mental fitness toolkit for all first responders and their families.

To find out more about Fortem, including their wellbeing activities schedule, go to fortemaustralia.org.au.

For more on the NSW Ambulance Family Support Network go to https://www.ambulance.nsw.gov.au/get-involved/nswambulance-family-support-network.