New protocols ‘not foolproof’

Updated protocols put in place to protect firefighters from carbon monoxide exposure in the Hazelwood mine will not guarantee their safety, an incident controller has admitted.

CFA deputy regional controller Andrew Zammit said new safety processes established in response to the hospitalisation of about 10 CFA volunteers last week was not foolproof.

“I’m confident the processes we’re putting in place will result in less people going to hospital, but we’re not in control of the environment 100 per cent of the time so there might be occasions when we need to review our processes…,” Mr Zammit said.

The fire in an inactive section of the Morwell open cut, which began last Sunday after spotting from the Hernes Oak fire, has created a carbon monoxide-rich environment in which some firefighters had worked without breathing apparatus equipment.

It has since emerged the majority of affected volunteers are Latrobe Valley-based.

About 20 firefighters are now believed to have attended hospital with exposure symptoms or concerns.

“What I can assure the community and the first responder’s families in general is that we’re trying to put every process in place to maximise their health and safety,” Mr Zammit said.

“I think what people need to bear in mind is the occupation of being first response for the community in one that has inherent risk to it and our job is to make sure we prepare our people in the best way so they are best equipped to deal with it.”

However one Latrobe Valley-based volunteer said he refused to go back into the mine after the initial handling of the firefight, referring to the sending of CFA volunteers into the mine as being “treated like guinea pigs”.

“This fire is three times as big as the one they had in 2008, so of course the conditions in there were going to be worse,” the volunteer said.

While the volunteer, who wished to remain anonymous, said he personally was not impacted by the increased exposure to carbon monoxide, he said he was speaking out chiefly in concern for the health of his colleagues.

“Us firefighters should never have been brought in there under those circumstances – when we were initially paged to go to the mine site, we had no idea that we were going to be sent into those conditions.”

The complex open cut firefight, which is burning on two separate sections on the mine batter, was scaled back on Wednesday to allow an operational safety review. With firefighting priority being placed on protecting critical infrastructure within the mine, all firefighters entering the mine were being tested for carbon monoxide exposure before and after shifts, and extra breathing apparatus equipment had been sourced from across Victoria.

More than 200 CFA and Melbourne Fire Brigade firefighters continued to work onsite at the weekend alongside Hazelwood response teams.

Watermains lines are being extended into the fire-affected section of the mine, allowing response crews to position sprinklers above the burn sites, sending continuous streams of water down the burning mine walls.

A CFA spokesperson said fire suppression efforts were focused on areas that will minimise smoke effects for communities and firefighters, taking into account upcoming wind forecasts.

Meanwhile GDF Suez spokesperson Trevor Rowe said mine operations – initially crippled by bushfire electricity blackouts – had returned to normal.

A seventh generation unit was hoped to be brought online on Friday night, with the eighth scheduled to come online at the weekend.