Firefighter infection palmed off

Fire authorities have backflipped on their rejection of claims a firefighter contracted septicemia in his hand after working in a contaminated Hazelwood mine dam.

According to the UFU, a firefighter, who cut his hand when undergoing a carbon monoxide test, contracted septicemia after being in contact with contaminated water from an in-mine dam referred to as the ‘HARA dam’ or ‘ash pit’.

While a Latrobe Valley deputy incident controller had initially rejected the claim, deputy state controller Peter Rau said the firefighter was still waiting on final test results for the infection in his hand and his department was still waiting on test results from the water in question.

The union said there were safety concerns for 13 firefighters after they had worked in the HARA dam for eight hours, which is considered a ‘no go’ zone.

According to firefighter witness statements provided exclusively to The Express, they did not know they had worked in an off-limits area until after their shift had ended.

Firefighters said in the statement they had not been told to wear protective clothing or masks while in the dam.

They said they were waist-deep in sludge which repeatedly clogged the pumper, which they were forced to clear using their hands.

Testing of the HARA dam and pond number five, which was believed to have been used in the fire fight, was conducted by Bureau Veritas HSE and returned results of high levels of coliforms and E.Coli Pseudomonas aeruginosa in the water.

Mr Rau said following the test results every effort had been made to prevent other firefighters from coming into contact with the toxic water.

Senior occupational hygienist Nick Harisis ran the tests and advised any person with a burn, cut or open wound should not be in contact with the water.

Mr Harisis told The Express the micro organisms could invade the body through damaged systems and could cause septicemia.

“People with burns and cuts should not come in contact with the water, it shouldn’t be ingested or inhaled, (firefighters) should wear proper protected equipment and maintain good personal hygiene,” Mr Harisis said.

In first correspondence with the incident control centre, Deputy Incident Controller Craig Brownley maintained water from the HARA dam and pond number five had not been directly used to fight the fire and the majority of water had been taken from pond four.

Mr Brownley also said onsite medical staff believed the infection the firefighter suffered was staphylococcus, rather than an infection stemming from water-born micro organisms, however further investigation was needed.

When The Express relayed Mr Brownley’s information to the UFU, organiser Peter Marshall immediately contacted deputy state incident controller and Metropolitan Fire Brigade chief officer Peter Rau who retracted the initial comments made by the Latrobe Valley incident control centre.

Professional firefighter Mick Tisbury, who witnessed the water tests, said pumpers used for fighting fires were in pond five and the HARA dam at the time of testing.

He also believed the control centre had delayed testing.

“They knew not to test for it because if they did they would say it’s toxic and you can’t use it for fire fighting; they’ve deliberately placed our lives at risk,” Mr Tisbury said.