Managing disaster compensation

Gabrielle Lis

Richard Green, injury and claims manager with the CFA after Black Saturday, knows what to expect from disaster-exposed workers, and how to help them through.

The Country Fire Association (CFA) was involved in fighting the Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in February 2009, in which 173 people died and 414 were injured. More than 19,000 CFA employees and volunteers took part in frontline fire fighting, incident management and behind-the-scenes support. Both employees and volunteers were eligible for injury compensation from the CFA.

In the wake of the 2011 floods across Queensland, NSW and Victoria, RTWMatters spoke to CFA Injury and Claims Manager Richard Green about how to best manage claims resulting from a traumatic event like a natural disaster.

The seven pointers below are based on his experiences, and on research that has been conducted into coping with disaster.  

Don't wait for the claims to come.

In a disaster situation many ordinary systems and processes are out of action. Usually injured people lodge their claims in reasonable time because of the normal supports offered in their workplace, or volunteer organisation. However, in a disaster situation, “normal” doesn’t apply. To ensure that seriously injured people are looked after properly it's a good idea to go and get the claims. Visit injured people in hospital or at home and have them or their relatives complete the form. For seriously injured people in hospital perhaps you can register the claim without initially having a form at all!

“I won't claim. There are people who are much worse off than me.”

Because so many members of the public will have been injured or killed, emergency service workers and volunteers often think that as they are alive and they don't need to (or shouldn't) make a claim.  Active publicity about claiming and encouragement to claim quickly is important to ensure that people receive timely treatment.

Proactive follow-up of injured claimants.

Getting the claim in is it just the first step. The same factors that discourage claims in disaster situations often cause injured people not to follow through with treatment. Case managers and employers need to ensure there is good follow-up to avoid claimants ceasing treatment before they have recovered.

Increase the number of people managing claims.

When normal workplace supports are not in place, and claims staff are required to go the extra mile in supporting claimants, it may be necessary to increase the number of staff managing claims. This will help prevent people falling through the cracks, and increase the level of support available to claimants.

Be alert to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The points above apply to PTSD claims - just more so! (See this RTWMatters interview with Professor Mark Creamer of the Australian Centre for Post-traumatic Mental Health for more details about PTSD in the workplace.) In addition to not claiming because of stigma and a "macho culture", there can be a reluctance to claim because others are so much worse off.  The longer the PTSD continues before being treated, the more difficult and lengthy is the recovery. Because of the reluctance to acknowledge PTSD and make a claim, many sufferers don't claim until they hit rock bottom with financial and relationship problems. Ongoing awareness and care by co-workers or volunteer colleagues is really important so that the PTSD sufferer can be provided with help as soon as they are prepared to accept it.

Is debriefing important?

There is sometimes a push to “debrief” survivors of a traumatic event, however an influential Dutch review of the evidence about compulsory debriefing for victims of trauma and found that it had little long term benefit, and did not prevent PTSD. If people want to talk about their experiences, a supportive listener may help carry the burden. However, debriefing should not be obligatory.

If debriefing doesn’t necessarily help, what will?

There are no hard and fast rules for assisting those exposed to disaster. Nevertheless, in 2007 an international panel of experts identified five attitudes / experiences that help in the short to mid-term.

Think about how you can promote feelings of:

  1. Safety
  2. Calmness
  3. Self- and community efficacy (i.e. a sense that there are things the individual and community can do to improve their situation)
  4. Connectedness
  5. Hope

Peer to peer support may be an effective way of creating a sense of community amongst a workforce who have survived disaster. The CFA has instituted a system of Psychological First Aid, with five steps for offering appropriate support to disaster-exposed individuals:

  1. Protect. The goal is to make contact after an incident and restore some sense of safety through physical and/or emotional support.
  2. Listen, Calm, Stabilise and Normalise. The goal is to calm and orient overwhelmed members and identify immediate needs through information gathering.
  3. Offer Practical Assistance. The goal is to help members address immediate needs and concerns.
  4. Connect with Social Supports. The goal is to help establish contact with support persons including family members, friends and the community.
  5. Talk Future. The goal is to provide information about effective coping and link members with ongoing support if required.


Published 16 January, 2011 | Updated 26 June, 2012