Topics: Morrison Government’s funding to support disaster emergency first responders
LUCY WICKS: Good morning, everyone, and thank you so much for being here. This is a really important announcement that is very close to my heart. We’ve seen a number of challenges here on the Central Coast. And our first responders, those people like the SES the police, the paramedics, our volunteer firefighters and so many others who are at the front line in each and every time that we need them do so much for our community, and this announcement that I’m privileged to be standing alongside Minister for Home Affairs, Karen Andrews, today is an important announcement in terms of providing support to them when they most need it. It’s an issue that’s very close to my heart, and it’s one that I believe is going to add enormous benefit not only to our first responders here on the Central Coast but also indeed around Australia. To make the formal announcement, I would like to welcome Karen Andrews, the Minister for Home Affairs.
KAREN ANDREWS: Well, thank you very much, Lucy, and it’s an absolute pleasure to be here with you today. And as the member for Robertson, I know that you have done an absolutely fantastic job for a number of years now, and I thank you so much for the support and the advocacy that you have given towards first responders. So, the announcement today is $10 million in funding for Fortem Australia to provide mental health and welfare services to first responders. That includes flood workers, it includes SES, police, fire, ambulance workers. We know that many of those people have gone through very difficult times responding to the floods, most recently, but each and every day can be very difficult for them and they face some very challenging circumstances. So, I’m delighted to announce the $10 million in funding for Fortem Australia. This builds on the $1.4 million of funding previously announced for Fortem Australia to support more enforcement agencies and security workers in the past. So, as I said, we understand that our first responders face challenges each and every day. They see, hear and experience things that many of us will, hopefully, never have to experience in our life. That means that they do need additional support to help them cope with what they have seen, to make sure that they are able to deal with those issues. So, this is a very important announcement for us and, of course, it goes to our announcements more broadly in the Budget where the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, made it very clear that we would be supporting essential services. So, the funding announcement today provides support for those people who are first responders, who are out there each and every day, providing that initial support to members of the community. We need to make sure that we are looking after their mental health and I’m delighted that this money has been awarded to Fortem Australia. We do have with us today the CEO of Fortem Australia, John Bale, and I invite him to speak specifically about the programs.
JOHN BALE: Thank you so much, Minister. Lucy, thanks so much for having us here in such a beautiful part of the world. So, Fortem Australia is a charity that supports the mental health of not just first responders, but also their families. Through the pandemic, through the floods we’ve just been through, as well as the bushfires and many other natural disasters this country will go through in the future, we recognise that our first responders need more support from a community organisation to help them with their mental health. Now, that’s about preventative mental health, mental fitness and providing opportunities to connect with an organisation that’s independent of the agencies in which they come from and to support the families. Now, we’ve learnt this model works through the work that we’ve completed in Soldier On, which is a national veterans organisation that I helped co-found back in 2012. It’s an organisation that’s gone on to grow because it needs to be independent of Government, but it needs to be supported by Government and the community, and taking that DNA across to Fortem has allowed us to really connect with those men and women on the ground, and their families, who have done so much for us. It’s been a real privilege to have this announcement today because it allows us to not just take our services from where we are at the moment, which is predominantly on the south and south-east coast of Australia, but also to expand that across the entire country, because the natural disasters, the pandemics, are not just one part of the country; they’re across the entire country. And to have this opportunity to fast‑forward our programs to make sure we can reach more than the 12 000 first responders that we’ve already reached in the first two years of our operations really means so much. So, on behalf of all first responders and their families and Fortem Australia, can I thank the Minister – thank you so much, Minister – and Lucy, for this funding. I’d like to quickly hand over quickly to our Fortem ambassador, a really good friend of mine who I’ve known now for almost – well, just over 10 years, a guy who has recently served here as a New South Wales Ambulance member. He recently retired after almost 18 years here on the Central Coast, and he can talk more about the impacts that some of the work that he’s undertaken has had on just not just him but his family, and why the work of Fortem Australia is so important.
JAMES MILLISS: Thank you, John. Thank you, Minister; thank you, Lucy. I’m just here to back up what John says. After 18 years I had to put my hand up. I had enough of being a paramedic, to be honest, and my mental health was an issue with it and through various traumatic jobs. So I engaged with Fortem, one, through their transition program as well as just some – their online learning and their online mental health apps, which is called Peak Fortem, which has just allowed myself to ground myself after some heavy shifts. As you can imagine, the pandemic’s been quite stressful on all first responders, and Fortem allowed me to transition out of paramedics and to a job that I’m now, you know – I’ve been able to transition out of the paramedics without having to be medically discharged or that type of thing, which can be an issue if Fortem isn’t able to get on top of first responders’ mental health and the difficulty and the job that we as first responders do. And currently the first responder community is under a lot of pressure. This funding will allow Fortem to go nationally and do what John has done for the South Coast and Fortem to get a cup of coffee to an overworked paramedic, overworked policeman, fireman, SES who’ve just come out of the flood zones or the fires that may occur this summer. So, this funding is so important for us as first responders and my brothers and sisters to be able to have an organisation that will look after them that isn’t their employer. Thank you.
JOURNALIST: We’ve heard some great things about [Indistinct], but why did you pick Fortem?
KAREN ANDREWS: There’s a good deal of analysis that’s undertaken by my Department to assess which applications or which programs are available out there that will be able to provide the support that is needed in the community. So, Fortem Australia was one of the organisations independently assessed by my Department, and I’m delighted that they have been chosen. They have a strong track record of delivery on the ground. There are other people that provide services as well, and they’re very good providers, but this $10 million in funding has been awarded to Fortem Australia to continue the great work that they are already doing.
JOURNALIST: How long and – how many other services were taken into consideration and also how long did your analysis take?
KAREN ANDREWS: Look, that’s really a matter for my Department to deal with in terms of the total number of applicants that are assessed, what their rigorous processes are, but I’m very confident that my Department takes into consideration all of the issues that are needed. This was a matter that was an issue that was announced in our Budget, so it’s not an election commitment, although I would have to say it’s in the Budget that was announced. Labor has indicated that should they be elected, they will be doing other budgets, so I can’t guarantee that if the opposition is elected to government, this funding would remain, but it’s been announced in our Budget and I’m here today with Lucy Wicks to announce that that money is here and available.
JOURNALIST: I’m not sure if this is one for you, [Indistinct], but how many years does the $10 million cover for and how does the money allow them to go national?
KAREN ANDREWS: It’s over two years so there will be about $2 million this financial year and then $8 million in the subsequent financial year. But I’m happy to invite John Bale to provide more detail in terms of the program.
JOHN BALE: Thanks. Currently, at this point in time we are sitting in 11 locations around the country and predominantly we’re supporting those who were impacted by the black summer fires. We went through a competitive grant process almost two years ago with a number of other mental health organisations. We were successful in picking that up grant, which we’ve now supported over 12,000 people in that roughly 11 locations, so they are Gold Coast, Port Macquarie, Sydney, which actually goes up almost to here and as well as down to Wollongong, Bega, Cooma, Canberra and that region as well as a number of areas around Gippsland – obviously those fire‑affected regions. Now, this will allow to us move further north and really for us to support this region, which obviously has a number of issues when it comes to first responder mental health and families. And further up the coast, including those areas that have been impacted by the recent floods around Lismore as well as regions further north in Queensland and moving across as well as to Darwin, Perth, Adelaide and Tasmania. So, covering off the entire country through the support of the Federal Government.
JOURNALIST: So, does the money pay for extra staff and/or [Indistinct] at the Central Coast?
JOHN BALE: It will pay for extra staff to actually deliver our services. So, we employ clinical psychologists, social workers, community‑based individuals to provide these services on our behalf. They are all part of our team. We will be providing those now due to this funding. So, we’ll increase our staff to deliver those services and therefore the impact we are make.
JOURNALIST: Do you know how many first responders you actually take care of and how many more this will allow you to service?
JOHN BALE: This will allow us – the current funding that we receive has allowed us to support just over 12,000 in the first two and a half years of that grant that I spoke about. We expect that to be doubled now with this funding in the next four months and then, hopefully, we can go a little bit further beyond that because we think with this opportunity we’re actually going to build a brand where first responders come to us. So, first responders as a group are quite hard to break into because, at the end of the day, they trust each other, but they don’t really trust many other people. Fortem has really started to connect with those first responders and their families. They can trust us and recognise that that trust is there so I think we’ll actually smash that figure and actually more than double the amount of people we already support.