Talking Mental Health and Fighting Fires with Hayden McLean

Posted by Top Livin on

As Australia continues to get behind those who continue fighting fires as some communities slowly come to terms with the recovery mission in front of them, we had the privilege of hearing from Hayden McLean, a NSW Forestry Fire Fighter and longtime supporter of LIVIN. 

Hayden took some of his valuable down time between his long shifts on the ground to give us a bit of an insight on what they are seeing and how they are supporting each other.  He also shared some of his personal photos with us, which through his love of photography (which saw him involved in last year's Collective Minds Photography Exhibition), puts us there on the ground with him and we sincerely thank Hayden and all of those fire fighters out there who are working so hard to protect to our homes and our land. 

Tell us a bit about yourself. . . 
I grew up in small town of Bowral in southern highlands which has grown rather drasticly since i was younger. My childhood envolved a lot of spot and outdoor activities. I have 1 older sibling and have had various pets growing up.

How and when did you decide to become a firefighter?
After a hand injury (Non work related) which left me unable to work for a year, which ended up putting me slightly in dept and depressed, I decided i would take a change in career from being a farm hand/Jack of all trades. As I was job hunting Forestry Seasonal Fire Fighter came up and I thought it would be an interesting career path and being only 6 months it would allow me to see if that is the career that I would like to persue further into the future.
Was the training and recruitment process harder than you expected?
It was rather easy. Before you can start you need to pass a medical and a fitness test, which not all agencies require you to do. Then you have to do a week-long boot camp or fire training.
The field work training is provided during the season if you pass all the above. Forestry has various ranks but the main 3 for most people are fire fighter, advanced fire fighter and crew leader, similar to other agencies.
What’s your role and where abouts are you based?
My role is as a seasonal field worker for Forestry NSW with fire fighting on top. This involves looking after the forest for various uses including recreational activities. We also have endangered plants and flora reserves we look after.
Many people just seem to associate e forestry with destruction but we are very strict with the areas we protect outside of the plantations.
The field work sees me falling pine trees out of the hard wood native sections to reduce spread and impact on native flora and fauna, through to fixing roads and maintaining rest areas for recreational users and a whole heap of stuff in between.
The fire fighting side of things also has a varying range of different things.
We have a local fire tower that we man throughout the day sometimes from 7:30am until dark, where we do standby and patrolling in the Tanker and our slipon units.
We effectively go to any fire in or around the pine plantations or we can get deployed interstate, which I had the opportunity to fly up to the fires near the Queensland border earlier in the year.
This year we saw a large section of Wingello state forest burnt. during that time we did a 26 hour shift which we ended up evacuating the forest and going into property protection to help save the small town of Winglelo and stop it spreading and further.

Is there anyone in your family that was in the service?
Not as a firefighter but my father was in VRA (Volunteer Rescue Association) for over 30 years which saw him do cave, cliff rescues, vehicle accidents and the like.

How important do you feel support is (both physical and emotional) when you’re out on the job?
I feel it is very important. This year I have a small supervisor role so keeping everyone happy both mentally and physically is important to me and for my crew. It makes the work place more efficient and people actually want to come to work and hang out with their mates rather than stay away.

At your station, do you all talk to one another about the events you see and how you feel about them? Do you feel conversation in general is encouraged? 
This year the crew is very open with things. We also have what is called a 'Toolbox Talk' where everything is discussed together in terms of safety risks, new equipment and anything else work or possibly non-work related. Conversation in general at work this season is very open, sometimes too open in terms of non-work related banter but it makes for a good interesting crew full of laughs.

What has been one of the most rewarding moments in your career so far?
I think the recent 26 hr shift was probably the most rewarding. It was difficult due to running on empty but the reward to help save a large number of homes at Wingello made it worthwhile with most of the locals are very appreciative of our efforts and support during that time. Another one would be ironically getting my first plane ride through work! I got deployed to go to the fires up north which was  all paid for. I was well looked after with the crew and work up there was very enjoyable.

What has been one of the most challenging moments of your career so far?
I think working with other agencies is probably the most challenging. There's problems some times when we show up trying to help and the other agency getting annoyed. It's just a small culture that exists with some crews so thankfully we don't come across it too often. For me personally, this year as a Supervisor has been challenging but a good challenge to try, test and improve my skills.  The opportunity has also seen me have to take on a few crew leader type roles at fires.

What’s the overall feeling from yourself and amongst your team and the other firefighters about the recent events?  
Personally I think they are lacking resources for most if not all agencies.  It was always predicted to be a big season as it was last year but funding wasn't provided to prepare for this for most agencies, I would assume. I don't know the full logistics for my work place or others but I feel most seem to be scraping the barrel for equipment and man power.
Sadly we don't receive much community support which is the same with national parks and other fire agencies that most people don't even know about. I feel the main reason for this is the media and never mentioning interagency work or what other groups that are actually helping on the fire ground.
Physically, I think we are all tired but we all love what we do and wouldn't change that so we basically just suck it up. We also have a fatigue management roster to follow so we do get a rest day every now and again.
Mental health takes its toll but with the crew this year it is enjoyable to be at work as it is always a laugh with the banter and jokes that get thrown around.
My particular crew was also a bit disappoint with some of the politics in terms of the media that has been at a few of the recent fires and where all the credit is going. 
I guess the overall feeling is that every agency is doing what they can when they can. 

How important do you feel you mental health and self-care is in times like this?
I think it is very important. From fatigue point of view we don't get much down time for ourselves. Its usually finish work at 21:00 and start again at 0730 and that's on a good day, sometimes we will work well past that. One of my passions out side of work is hiking and photography which I haven't had time to do for past 2 months. On my rest days or days off, it's usually resting as all the parks and forests around me are shut due to high fire risk. So you get a bit isolated and frustrated I guess which even the general public would be feeling at his time.

What age and how did you first start enjoying photography?
I got into photography around the age of 18. I got my first camera which was half dads camera as well. From there I've bought 2 cameras of my own and spent god knows how much money on my photography hobby. Thankfully for me it goes hand in hand with my hiking and outdoors hobby so the money isn't wasted as much as it could be. 
I always enjoy posting about mental health whether it is my story or just trying to reduce stigma or raise awareness. I've had endless messages over the years thanking me for doing this from complete strangers which I am really grateful for and it also helps me realise that not everyone out there is out to get you.

When you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, what are some strategies and tools that you use that helps you get through those tough times?
It used to be to get outdoors whether it was hiking or 4wding and take my camera with me. Photography is what I use as art as I've never been a great drawer but I enjoy capturing and showing the world how beautiful our natural landscape is and try to encourage people to get outdoors as it helps my mental health and many others.
Currently I don't get to do that much so I tend to just try to socialise with people whether it be on social media or a small coffee in town.

How did hear about LIVIN and what made you connect with our message? 
I think I saw it on a morning breakfast show or something at some stage. Mental health has been a huge part of my life and I wanted to support something like that. The brand, logo etc., I thought was great and not too. I guess I just followed the brand and now a lot of people I know seem to  associate me with my LIVIN hat. I've had various people come up just from my simple hat which in some ways is creepy but it just shows you the power of social media and connection. 

What advice would you give someone who is struggling with their own mental health?
You need to try and find the right people to surround yourself with and find a passion that makes you happy. I don't think a hobby would really cut it for me so I guess I just say my passion is the outdoors.
I work outdoors and when I'm not at work, I'm exploring and adventuring new places all the time. That then leads to my passion of promoting the outdoors and what it can do for your mental health.
The people who you associate with socially and your job, also has a lot to do with it. With my current job, the past 3 years I've actually wanted to be at work and become somewhat a workaholic because I love being there. It makes me happy. We spend majority of our lives at work so if you aren't happy at work, it's time for a change.

The country as a whole is so grateful for all of the incredible work of those who are that are out there fighting and managing the fires. Is there anything you would like to say on behalf of yourself as a firefighter to those that have posted messages of 'Thanks'?
I guess all I can say is 'Thank you' back to those people. I'm not the best at taking compliments so it does get awkward even when people have also offered to buy my drinks etc which is also nice. I like how the country bands together with times like these and hopefully it can continue with other events into the future.
All images taken by Hayden McLean, NSW Forestry Fire Fighter @haydo_mclean
If you are struggling and need support during this time, visit Lifeline's page on tips with recovering from a Natural Disaster or our Get Help page for other organisations that can help.