SHOCKING MEMORY: The Cowper bus crash was every rescuer's nightmare, says Bryan Robins.
SHOCKING MEMORY: The Cowper bus crash was every rescuer's nightmare, says Bryan Robins.

The lasting impact of the Cowper tragedy

NOTHING could prepare first responders for what they were about to witness.

"The scene was overwhelming; just the volume of dead, dying and injured. It would have tested the emergency service resources in the middle of a major city, so we battled," former SES regional officer for the Clarence/Nambucca region Bryan Robins said.

On October 20, 1989 a semi-trailer travelling along the Pacific Highway near Cowper collided head-on with a coach, killing 22 people.

Almost three decades have passed since the incident, but the mental images, the sounds, the smells have remained with those involved.

Today, emergency services have access to mental health services within the organisation to cope with the trauma of being exposed to horrific scenes like the Cowper bus crash. Back then, volunteers had nowhere to turn to get help for themselves.

"There wasn't any mental health support at that time and there was this attitude within management that counselling was bullsh--t," Mr Robins said.

"When I told my boss that I was having big problems because of Cowper, both at home and at work, he told me to harden up and drink alcohol."

For Mr Robins, the best thing to come from the experience was to see the volunteers together again for the 25th anniversary, where most were finally recognised for their efforts that day.

"It was wonderful to catch up with these 36 volunteers and I got to talk to most of them and do a mental health check," he said.

"They all enjoyed the experience... it was very cathartic for them to be able to talk about it, talk about how they felt, and realise that they weren't alone."



MENTAL HEALTH and well-being are now at the forefront of emergency services operations according to SES peer support coordinator Tom Alexander.  

"We've got a 24/7 peer support hotline, a senior chaplain and a number of other chaplains throughout the state who go out after an incident," he said.  

Mr Alexander added that there are 64 volunteers throughout the state trained to provide basic psychological first aid to any volunteer that needs it.  

"If they're not sleeping or have a challenging mental health issue after an incident, they can go and speak to them," he said.   

"We're very low with regards to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder cases as a result."   Mr Alexander said these programs also included preventative systems.   

"We don't just throw volunteers out the door to a scene," he said.   

"For example, there was a new person who had need been to a road incident before, so they stood him down. They don't want to bring him into it until he's ready."  

Since taking over the role in November 2017, Mr Alexander has put a five-year mental health strategy in place, including a self-awareness program and new mobile phone application.   

"We developed a peer support app where, after they attend a scene, they just log in and provide some basic details," he said.   

"This means we can keep track of different incidents, keep track of the context and provide better support when needed."