News & Media

Canaries in the coal mine

  • Hazelwood Mine Fire 2014
  • 1,500 acres of coal smouldered for 45 days
  • Health monitoring at Hazelwood

By: CFA News

Category: Health & Safety, Operational Information

  2.32 PM 3 January, 2017

Location: General

Views: 3542

It should come as no surprise that CFA knows a fair bit about smoke on the fireground.

But CFA’s work on the science of smoke exposure – and carbon monoxide, in particular – has broken new ground in Australia and, in doing so, has significantly increased safety for crews on the fire ground.

Craig Tonks, CFA’s scientific officer, recently shared the results of this work with an international audience at the International Smoke Symposium in Long Beach, California.

It is science done – quite literally – at the coal face. Craig explains: “It goes back to the 2006 Hazelwood Mine fire. At that time, there were no state-level procedures for monitoring carbon monoxide at fires. So it was a case of setting up an air monitoring and health monitoring system on the fly.”

That early work at Hazelwood helped firefighters in immediately practical ways. For instance, Craig and the monitoring teams recognised that firefighters who presented with symptoms of dehydration or heat stress were in fact experiencing symptoms from elevated levels of carbon monoxide in their systems.

With this and other observations, the health monitoring teams were able to put into place protocols that are now standard at any fire with hazardous levels of carbon monoxide.

In 2014, a new fire at Hazelwood would test these monitoring and safety protocols to their limit. While it has only been two years, it’s worth remembering the sheer scale and challenge of presented by the 2014 Hazelwood Mine fire.

For 45 days, 1,500 acres of brown coal smouldered. At its peak, 250 firefighters and more than 100 support staff worked each shift.

Craig Tonks says the insight gained from the 2006 and subsequent 2008 fires at Hazelwood meant that health teams were well prepared for what they were soon to face, including the potential impact on Morwell and local communities

“It was massive in terms of scale but the system was set up straight away. We were able to monitor crews on a continuous cycle of ‘fitness for duty.’

“From the community perspective, we had the monitoring there and when the wind changed we were ready for it,” recalls Craig.

And it’s not just at coal fires where CFA’s carbon monoxide experience is helping to improve both firefighter and community safety. Similar monitoring techniques were deployed at the Somerton tip fire, the Broadmeadows tyre dump fire and the Strathdownie peat fire.

“The job starts on the fire ground,” Craig stresses. “If it’s a big job – particularly when it’s a smouldering fire with high carbon monoxide emissions – we can escalate our response. If we are getting high levels of carbon monoxide and we’ve got a vulnerable down-wind community, then we think the EPA and Department of Health should get involved.”

Craig also points to the operational benefits of early monitoring. “We can brief the incident controller on the situation. They are normally more focused on fighting the fire, so it takes the pressure off them. We’ll give them quantitative evidence that we have a certain level of risk and they can make the call.”

In the end, however it’s the safety of CFA and other firefighters that is the first priority for Craig and his colleagues in science.

“It’s all about preventing over exposure to these contaminants. So people are not going to be on the fire ground for 12 hours at a time during these type of events. They’ll have regular health assessments throughout their shift. They’ll be working under very strict OH&S guidelines. Monitoring and testing provides much greater protection for our peoples’ health.”

Last Updated: 09 January 2017