At 75 years old, Mike McGee likes spending quiet time with his wife, enjoying the seaside views from their home, or in his woodworking workshop, wood-turning and carving his next project. These days Mike has found a nice serenity in his retirement, after 24 years in the ACT Fire & Rescue, it’s a well deserved peace.
Mike joined the fire-brigade in 1976 and has pretty much done it all – from working with bushfire tankers out in the regions, to taking emergency calls – no two days in his 24-year career was the same. Mike enjoyed his work, as a shift worker it allowed him the opportunity to spend more time with his wife and kids – a rarity at the time. He also loved the comradery, the family of fellow firies he relied on to keep him safe on the job and who in turn depended on Mike to have their backs.
It’s a family, where you have to trust and depend on these people more than any other job – it saves lives.
But with the comradery and the satisfaction knowing that you’re saving lives comes a personal toll. It wasn’t until after he retired that Mike realised the effects the job had on him. He suffered PTSD and had “interesting” dreams from the stress and some of the horrors he’s seen on the job, things he thinks he’s unlikely to ever forget.
It was a very good job. And very stressful. You were trained to a point you didn’t realise you were stressed, it was just something you did… you think it’s all normal until you stop doing it.
But the people he really feels for are the volunteer firefighters in the country regions, who don’t have the funding and resources for proper training in how to deal with trauma, nor the necessary debriefing and counselling services afterwards.
The toll of the job on Mike wasn’t just psychological. During his time on the brigade, Mike was exposed to a number of chemicals and other by-products from the fires, as well as a chemical known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), which was used extensively in firefighting foam, which studies have found may have long term negative health effects on people.
In 2005 Mike started developing ferocious night sweats among other symptoms and was later diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. A medical report in 2020 found that Mike’s exposure to PFAS and related compounds could substantially increase his lifetime risk of developing non-Hodgkins lymphoma. As part of his treatment, Mike underwent chemotherapy and had his stem cells harvested in the event his cancer came back, which he recalls as one of the worst things he’s had to endure, but he was grateful to have the support of his remarkable wife.
It was awful. It brings you to the brink of death and then back again. But it saved my life, I would do it again.
In late 2018, he was again diagnosed with cancer, this time it was Follicular Lymphoma. After treatment, Mike is currently stable, but his doctors tell him that a reoccurrence is fairly likely.
It was also during this time that Mike received a call from Robyn Wood, whose husband Ken died in 2017 after suffering from colorectal, liver, lung and secondary lung cancer, after joining the brigade on the same day as Mike. She told Mike to get in touch with the United Firefighters Union (UFU) to discuss his possible rights for compensation. The UFU then referred Mike to Gabriella Giunta from Slater and Gordon. Gabriella was able to help Mike with his Comcare compensation claim for permanent impairment and pain and suffering. The compensation money Mike was able to receive will now go towards setting him and his wife up for the future.
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Mike is grateful for everyone who’s helped him along the way and thinks retired and even current firefighters need to know about the long-term health impacts of the job and that they have rights. He believes many people will have fallen through the cracks.
I heard that one firefighter I knew died an awful death, and his son and wife wanted to look into a claim, but it all got a bit too hard, so they ended up giving up.
Greg McConville, National President of the UFU encourages all current and retired members of the ACT Fire and Rescue to contact the UFU as soon as they think they may have a Workers’ Compensation claim. Explaining that this is especially important where you are in doubt over whether you may have a claim.
There’s an emerging body of case law and determinations in this area, if you think your health condition is related to the job and even if you’re not sure, get in contact with [your union] as soon as possible.
As for Mike, he’s now looking forward to the future – a future that he plans to keep calm and relaxing after a stressful career. He has no regrets about his career and is proud to have helped people.
I’ll look forward, not backwards. It’s not productive looking to the back all the time… I don’t want to know about the good old days. I look forward to something new.
The contents of this blog post are considered accurate as at the date of publication. However the applicable laws may be subject to change, thereby affecting the accuracy of the article. The information contained in this blog post is of a general nature only and is not specific to anyone’s personal circumstances. Please seek legal advice before acting on any of the information contained in this post.