Volunteer firefighters spending extended periods battling NSW bushfires say they are having to cough up significant sums of money for upgraded respirators, amid fears the disposable masks issued by the Rural Fire Service aren’t providing enough protection for the severity of exposure.
A Facebook post by a member of the Copacabana Rural Fire Brigade on the state’s Central Coast requesting donations so firefighters could buy P3 masks costing $350, prompted outrage that the masks aren’t provided.
But a spokesman for the RFS insisted disposable P2 masks remain the most appropriate respiratory protection for volunteer firefighting – and he said P3 masks, by design, can pose risks such as an increase in the likelihood of heat stress.
The disposable P2 masks are “a practical solution for managing exposure to bushfire smoke when taking into account other risks such as the displacement of metabolic heat,” the spokesman said.
P3 masks, on the other hand, can “interfere with the correct fitment of goggles, helmet and flash hood, as well as retain metabolic heat by the volume of the firefighters face being covered” which “contributes to heat exhaustion”.
The spokesman said any crowdfunding activity was not authorised by the RFS, and the organisation could not verify that individual crowdfunding pages were legitimately going to local brigades.
The Copacabana brigade declined to comment on Thursday, except to say the crowdfunding post had been taken down.
But the question remains contentious among volunteer firefighters during an unprecedented fire season in which many are spending extended periods on the front line, exposed not only to smoke particles but to toxic gases and liquids such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde and benzene – with only a disposable mask to protect their lungs.
Volunteer firefighter and deputy captain of the Picton Rural Brigade, Andrew Hain, has already spent more than three times as many days battling bushfires this year as he would in a usual season. He said firefighters are worried about what such exposure is going to do to their health later on.
Safety risk or ‘game changer’?
After fighting the Green Wattle Creek fire south of Warragamba Dam on the outskirts of Sydney for the past week, Mr Hain borrowed a half-face respirator from another member to test. He called it a “game changer”.
“Couldn’t taste smoke, couldn’t feel it. At times when normally I’d be having to back out, holding my breath, you’re just able to stay in there and see a bit more and throw water on things that you wouldn’t have been able to engage with otherwise.”
Mr Hain said he understands there are practicalities that can make it difficult for the RFS to roll out these kinds of masks on a mass scale, but he doesn’t think it’s a reason not to offer them as an option.
“There’s probably a lot of people out there doing a lot of firefighting that would suit quite well,” he said.
Not all firefighters want the heavy-duty masks, he said, but those who do end up having to upgrade their protective equipment at their own expense. He said that “sucks”, because there are no rebates and no avenue for volunteers to claim that money back through tax.
“It’s all 100 per cent out of pocket. These guys and girls are already giving a huge amount of their own time and effort as it is, for them to be financially impacted … it’s disappointing.”
The RFS spokesman said members are not reimbursed for privately purchased components as “untested and potentially unsafe products could pose significant safety risks”.
For the RFS to consider changing any of its provided firefighting equipment and apparel “would require a full and compressive scientific research and evaluation process,” he said.
Volunteer Fire Fighters Association spokesman Mick Holton said the RFS should engage its members on the issue not wait until the end of the season to do something.
He said the VFFA was receiving a lot of complaints from firefighters concerned the level of protection from P2 masks was not high enough for the amount of exposure they are getting.
“I think the message really is quite clear, that if firefighters are feeling uncomfortable then it needs to be addressed,” he said.
“We always say chewing smoke is not good but it can’t always be avoided. So what it has to be is minimised. But if you’re going to more fires, that’s not minimising your exposure.”
NSW Minister for Emergency Services David Elliott declined to comment, referring instead to the RFS statement.