Ballarat firefighter fell sick after battling Morwell blaze

A Ballarat firefighter says he fell ill and was hospitalised after spending six hours down Hazelwood Mine last month.

Leading firefighter Brenton Smith, who has been part of a rotating group of Ballarat City firefighters assisting the Hazelwood fire operation, said he became ill with nausea and headaches caused by smoke inhalation immediately after a six-hour shift in the burning coal mine.

It comes amid union claims that firefighters working in the mine were exposed to dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide.

Mr Smith, a career firefighter at Ballarat City and a union shop steward, said he went down the mine with a group of about 20 firefighters for six consecutive hours after they were instructed to do so.

Due to communication issues in the early days of the fire, he said, some personnel were unaware of regulations stipulating a two-hour rest period after two hours on.

He said firefighters were also given carbon monoxide monitors to wear, but they weren’t told how to use them. “We didn’t find out until after we came out that the readings were dangerous,” Mr Smith said.

Mr Smith said he was one of three Ballarat firefighters checked by medical staff after going down the mine but the only one to fall sick, with a doctor at Ballarat Base Hospital indicating his symptoms were consistent with smoke inhalation and not carbon monoxide.

United Firefighters Union national secretary Peter Marshall this week said authorities were made aware early on of the risky conditions fire crews were made to work in at the mine.

“The CFA and MFB’s consultants say firefighters were unnecessarily and knowingly exposed to high levels of carbon monoxide that could’ve been, and knowingly are, detrimental to their health,” he told ABC radio yesterday.

CFA spokesperson Gerard Scholten said CFA records showed 17 firefighters had presented with elevated levels of carbon monoxide in the first few days of the fire, but none were admitted to hospital after being cleared by medical checks.

He said the health monitoring system set up was comprehensive and involved checks on firefighters even before they started work, but conceded there were some issues in the first 48 hours of the fire.

“It was a very dynamic environment, there was a lot of fire in the pit,” Mr Scholten said. “The issues were quickly identified and they were rectified.”

Mr Scholten said the CFA had a safety-first culture and it believed the systems implemented were world standard, with a second report by consultants praising the operation.

He said an independent inquiry into the mine fire, overseen by former Supreme Court justice Bernard Teague, was welcomed by the CFA.

rachel.afflick@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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