FIREFIGHTING AT THE HAZELWOOD MINE

The nature of firefighting means that firefighters are deliberately placed in hazardous, often uncontrolled conditions that expose them to a number of risks. For this reason it is very important to have adequate training and policies in place to ensure that the safety of firefighters is protected to the extent that is reasonably practicable.

Due to the size of the Hazelwood mine fire, the length of time that the coal burned, the gases produced by the fire, and the location of the fire within the coal mine, firefighters and other mine staff were exposed to multiple hazards.1 In particular, the mine fire generated potentially hazardous emissions, including carbon monoxide, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds (for example, benzene) and ozone.

Over 7,000 fire service firefighters and 200 mine employees and contractors battled the mine fire.They acted courageously for 45 days in difficult conditions to contain the fire, until it was declared safe on 25 March 2014 (see Figure 4.39).

Figure 4.39 Firefighters at the Hazelwood Power Station

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Image source Fairfax Syndication

On 13 February 2014 (four days after the fire in the mine started), Mr Craig Lapsley, Fire Services Commissioner, determined that the mine fire should have a HazMat (hazardous materials and items) overlay applied to operations. A HazMat overlay influences the way that an event is dealt with by emergency services.3

Mr Lapsley told the Board that this decision was taken because firefighters were being exposed to carbon monoxide, and that:

…our firefighters were treating this in [sic] a structural type fire and not using hazardous materials type procedures. We needed to emphasise to the firefighters the hazardous materials type nature of this, that it was generating other things than just smoke and ash.4