Firefighter Claims Poor Quality Masks Left Her ‘Coughing Ash For A Week’
A firefighter has complained that the face-covering she was provided by the RFS is so bad that it made her sick after the service denied claims it was handing out thin surgical masks.
The spotlight has turned to the protective gear the NSW service has been providing to its firefighters as they battle hundreds of blazes across the state, after multiple complaints from local units.
A firefighter who has been battling blazes near Canberra, claimed the P2 masks she had been provided often left her with breathing difficulties, coughing up ash, and susceptible to sickness.
Emma Bavington, from Queanbeyan, claimed some firefighters in her unit had purchased equipment like helmets and goggles -- sturdier gear than that provided by the RFS -- with their own money.
She also claimed the disposable P2 masks that were given to the unit often ran out quickly.
"I’ve been wearing the best P2 mask I could find, and still hacking up the ash for the next week," she told 10 daily.
"I'm coughing for days on end afterwards. Last time it was really bad, I had a cough for a month. I usually end up getting a cold or flu."
Bavington, 20, works with the Carwoola brigade and has been an RFS volunteer for three years.
Last week she was battling a large blaze at Braidwood, on the outskirts of Canberra, when she said she found a stack of surgical-style mouth coverings in a fire truck.
"I was looking for P2 masks, and I came across them. I looked at my crew, and they said 'that's what we were given'," she said.
"I was in a bit of shock, I didn't know why it would be there."
She said no firefighter actually wore the surgical masks.
She also claimed no P2 masks were available at the fire ground that day, and that she and other volunteers had to wear old masks instead.
An RFS spokesperson told 10 daily the masks had been donated in a "goodie bag" by members of the local community and were not supplied by the RFS directly. The spokesperson said the RFS would never distribute such masks as firefighting protection.
Bavington claimed firefighters were routinely left to reuse old P2 masks for several days in a row, due to a lack of supply. She described the P2 masks as "very basic", "flimsy" and "like breathing through a wet cloth".
"We've been running on what resources we can find for a while now. It gets pretty bad -- it's forest fire, not clean smoke. There’s dozens of crews coming in every day, all going through gear, it’s hard to find enough to go around," she said.
"Some brigades have a supply of masks in their shed or trucks, sometimes there’s boxes being delivered to major staging areas, but they go pretty quick ... if it's a hectic day with lots of smoke, you probably should be replacing them at least once or twice a day, but we don’t because we don’t have enough."
The RFS spokesperson told 10 daily it recommended firefighters replace masks at least once a day.
Bavington's complaint came after a Central Coast unit started a crowdfunding campaign to purchase expensive respirator face masks.
The treasurer of that brigade, Joe Arena, said he was "horrified" volunteers had to use "NSW Rural Fire Service issued dust masks" (P2).
“In defence of the RFS, these are unprecedented conditions, on a scale no one could have anticipated, but we have no choice but to go out and fight fire with what we have," he said on Facebook this week.
The RFS defended its preference for P2 masks over the sturdier P3 respirators, with deputy commissioner Rob Rogers saying they were "a practical solution", and had been approved by Safe Work NSW and the Australian Fire and Emergency Services Council.
Leighton Drury, secretary of the Fire Brigade Employees Union, told 10 daily on Thursday he believed stocks of P2 masks -- sold freely in hardware stores as protection for construction or gardening work -- were running low in NSW and could understand if fire brigades were struggling to keep crews supplied.
"There's probably not many left in NSW, as the population is buying them because of smoke," he said.
"There might be a shortage, but are [fire services] getting fully funded? Absolutely not."
Bavington said she wanted to see firefighters given a choice of mask to wear, including P3 models.
"We're all volunteers. If you choose to wear a P2, that’s fine, but if you’re concerned for your health, you should have a choice. Anyone who wants the P3, the RFS should provide it," she said.
"Firefighters shouldn’t have to fork out hundreds of dollars to buy their own, and the brigade shouldn’t either. I know one brigade near me is considering going out and buying P3 masks."
Brian McDonough, president of the NSW Rural Fire Service Association, told 10 daily P2 masks are more practical as they're lighter and provide less breathing resistance than the heavier P3 -- which he said can get "extremely hot" as they cover much of the face.
"The P2 isn't perfect but neither is the P3. Everyone's face is a different shape, and it depends on how good a seal you get with the mask," McDonough said.
RFS deputy commissioner Rogers said in a Wednesday memo to brigades that the service would review its protective equipment policy next year.
"A periodic review of personal protective equipment, which will include helmets, goggles, boots and face masks is scheduled for the end of the fire season."