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Learning from experience – recycling plant fire
MFB and CFA firefighters responded to a significant fire at the Coolaroo recycling plant involving several piles of paper, cardboard, plastic and other waste materials.
Each issue of Brigade magazine contains a ‘Learning from experience’ section which includes case studies of major incidents researched by Fire & Emergency Management.
A case study is an explanatory story based on a real-life incident that looks at what happened and why it happened. The aim is for people to learn from the case study so they improve their decision making in time-critical situations.
Each case study gives an overview of the incident containing all the important facts and a list of lessons identified. These lessons will help CFA members in a similar situation to make good decisions.
Recycling plant fire, Coolaroo
MFB and CFA firefighters responded to a significant fire at the Coolaroo recycling plant. The fire involved several piles of recycling material including paper, cardboard, plastic and other waste materials. It took fire crews up to three days to control the blaze which burned for 11 days, sending clouds of smoke across Melbourne.
After MFB firefighters’ initial size-up of the incident, they recognised the seriousness and potential complexity of the fire, and identified that health monitoring was vital for emergency personnel combating the fire.
On Thursday 13 July 2017 a fire broke out at the Coolaroo recycling plant. At 8.44am a call came through to CFA requesting assistance at the incident. The weather forecast was strong northerly winds of 35-45km per hour, gusting up to 60km during the day. With a large number of firefighters and incident management personnel on scene, there was a need for health monitoring for all.
CFA’s Health Monitoring Team (HMT) manager was contacted by the MFB scientific officer, who requested CFA’s health monitoring rehabilitation units. The Mernda unit arrived on scene at 11.23am and immediately began setting up at the staging area using MFB’s Urban Search and Rescue (USAR) equipment. The Mernda unit worked with Ambulance Victoria and implemented mandatory health monitoring at 11.30am on 13 July and continued until 5pm on 16 July.
The HMT provided 24-hour coverage in two shifts per day. The HMT manager reviewed the exposure risks and recommended mandatory health checks for all agencies that were present on the site which included MFB, CFA, EPA, WorkSafe, Victoria Police, Vic Parks, contractors and caterers.
Health checks were conducted at the start of shifts, the start of breaks and at the end of shifts. Extra health monitoring equipment was supplied to the teams, which meant health checks were done in a timely, professional manner.
What are the health monitoring rehab units?
In 2015, CFA introduced health monitoring rehab units to check the health of members while they were firefighting or dealing with hazardous materials. In the past two years, there has been a noticeable reduction in cases of heat stress and dehydration.
CFA currently has 16 HMT brigades with 230 health professionals, doctors, nurses, paramedics, other medical personnel and support members. The rehab crews and health professionals are trained CFA volunteers who give their time to assess fireground injuries and exposures, including measuring heart rate, oxygen saturation, carbon monoxide in the bloodstream and hydration levels. The units are now being used by other emergency services throughout Victoria.
- Having the health units at the fire allowed for continuous medical monitoring and hydration to ensure firefighters avoided health issues. The health unit was set up within hours of the fire being reported and the crews were rotated continuously, giving them breaks for medical monitoring. This reduced headaches and lethargy and brought core body temperatures down.
- HMT and Ambulance Victoria crews successfully worked together over the four days and developed a good working relationship to ensure the incident was managed safely for responders and the community.
- CFA health teams are a very important part of response to an incident and have many benefits for emergency responders and the community. CFA is launching more health teams across the state and with this increasing number of health teams CFA can provide 24-hour coverage.
This incident showed that activating atmospheric monitoring and health monitoring early in an incident decreased the risk of exposure and possible injury. The need to escalate or reduce monitoring can be assessed as the incident progresses. Also, having these processes in place makes firefighters think about their safety.