Like other seasoned firefighter volunteers across the country, Mick Holton is no stranger to the flames and the heat, the terrible noise and the darkness. Smoke is just one part of all that. But its effect on his health may stretch well beyond the weeks and months of immediate danger that he and others face as they go daily into battle.
“Anyone who’s been chewing smoke, as we say - you’re in the thick of it,” said Mr Holton, who is also president of the Volunteer Fire Fighters Association (NSW).
Bushfire smoke is dangerous. It’s full of tiny suspended fine particulate matter, measuring only 2.5 micrometres (written as PM2.5). To get an idea of how small that is, a micrometre is 1000 times smaller than a millimetre. Particles that size easily get into your lungs and cause inflammation, resulting in symptoms like itchiness, coughing, watery eyes and sneezing. They get into your bloodstream and affect your respiratory, cardiovascular and immune systems and change your body’s chemical functions.
Also present in bushfire smoke are toxic contaminants like carbon monoxide, respiratory irritants (particles, formaldehyde, acrolein) and volatile organic compounds (like benzene).
That’s concerning when it’s just for a few days a year, but now that many firefighters have already clocked up over 100 days and the summer’s not yet over, there’s a debate about whether enough is being done to protect them.
Most states issue volunteers with P2 masks, which filter out PM2.5 particles. The NSW RFS said P2 masks are "a practical solution for managing exposure to bushfire smoke when taking into account other risks such as the displacement of metabolic heat."
But Queensland Fire and Emergency Services started rolling out P3 masks last year, which filter 99.3% of particulates compared to the P2’s 93%.
“The filters QFES use are a type of Particulate, Organic Vapours and Formaldehyde (POVF) filter as studies have shown a reduction in respiratory (irritant) symptoms using POVF filters in bushfire smoke,” they explained to their members.
Some volunteers who’ve been issued with P2 masks are taking matters into their own hands, preferring to face the flames in a P3 rated mask and paying for it themselves.
“Even with a P2 mask on, you go to ground a fair bit. You go right down on your hands and knees because it’s a bit thicker up higher. And you feel like throwing up,” said Mr Holton.
One volunteer, who is also a doctor, told The Guardian it’s hard to get a good fit with the P2 masks, the straps break easily and get tangled, and they’re hard to breathe through when they’re wet.
“While that might be manageable with regular mask replacement in a two-hour incident, it is unsatisfactory during 12-hour shifts, much of it in heavy smoke,” he said.
Others, like Tuggerah Brigade Deputy Captain Paul Smith, have found the P2 mask did not provide enough protection from smoke in the intense conditions.
“I was having smoke coming up towards me at eye level. And I was wearing a P2 mask and I was going home coughing and spluttering,” Mr Smith told Ophelia Haragli.
Ms Haragli has been raising funds through My Sister’s Keeper, a Facebook page originally set up by her brother to support her through her long and difficult experience with cancer.
Another NSW brigade captain told her: “As the months have worn on, I realise I've had a sore throat for six weeks, I've been coughing up crap for about two months. I feel like I can't breathe. We have to protect ourselves.”
The effect this could have on the firefighters down the track is something that greatly concerns Ms Haragli.
“We have these volunteer firefighters who are giving up their time, their finances, potentially risking their lives, what is the future impact on them for breathing in this smoke?” she told Smith’s Lawyers’ Kristen Brown.
Ms Haragli has been working to help those on the front line by providing them with masks that have both a P3 filter and an ABE gas and vapour filter, protecting against inhalation of particulate matter as well as toxins and chemicals.
The masks are supplied by an Australian-owned family business, Allens, at a discounted price, but they still cost $112 each (including the extra filters).
“I can't claim to want to raise awareness about cancer and then sit back and watch those risking their lives get through this horrid inferno, only to find their lives risked all over again by an enemy they cannot see,” Ms Haragli wrote on the My Sister’s Keeper Facebook page.
Ms Haragli has been giving the masks as gifts to rural brigades that don’t have the resources to raise the funds themselves.
“In the beginning I got out 1500 [masks] within 10 days. I took them out, I did 750kms a day to make sure that they were geared up.
“They [used to] go in and wherever there was smoke they’d hold their breath, because the other masks do not protect them from smoke inhalation,” Ms Haragli said.
“Now they can stay there for three or four hours at a time, fighting the fires, breathing completely clean air, never having to hold their breath once.”
Mr Holton said the masks Ms Haragli is handing out are a good alternative.
“They’ve got a better seal on your face and they meet the requirements of the Australian standards and they offer better levels of protection,” he explained.
“I’ve worn the p2 masks. They’re better than just breathing in unfiltered atmosphere in many cases,” said Mr Holton, “but I don’t believe they go far enough.”
Mr Holton said he’s used a number of different respiratory aids, including breathing apparatus (BA, which is what professional firefighters wear) and the Sundström system that Ms Haragli is providing.
“To wear an air set on your back (breathing apparatus) that gives you extra weight and then has only duration of probably half an hour maximum just doesn’t make any sense. These masks fall somewhere in between,” he said.
But some organisations that oversee volunteer brigades have not supported the wearing of masks not issued by them.
In recent days, the The Country Fire Authority (CFA) in Victoria said it would not accept donations of P3 masks from Rare Cancers Australia “until proper internal evaluations have been undertaken”.
The Copacabana Rural Fire Brigade on the NSW Central Coast and the Ingleside brigade in Sydney’s north were two brigades who appealed to the public to pay for professional-quality respirators.
"In defence of the RFS, these are unprecedented conditions on a scale no one could have anticipated," Copacabana Rural Fire Brigade treasurer Joe Arena wrote on Facebook.
In response, a memo from the RFS Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said the leadership was “concerned” that the requests had been made to the public “without the appropriate authority”.
“NSW RFS firefighters are provided all necessary tools and equipment to undertake their work. This includes fire appliances and associated hoses, nozzles and all personal protection equipment including respiratory protection,” the memo said.
"For the service to consider changing any of its provided firefighting equipment and apparel would require a full and compressive scientific research and evaluation process," wrote Deputy Commissioner Rogers.
Some firefighters reported being told that wearing a different mask would exclude them from compensation for injury or illness, regardless of the cause.
But Greg Smith, Principal at Smith's Lawyers said it all depends on circumstances.
“There would be no automatic exclusion on the basis of wearing a different mask,” he advised.
Volunteer Fire Fighters Association (NSW) president Mick Holton said the NSW Rural Fire Service hasn’t been “proactive”.
“My opinion is that if a workforce is saying that they don’t believe something is good enough, your employer has a responsibility to investigate that and make sure they’re offering the best scenario.
“Not being open-minded in my mind leaves them a little open to criticism if something happens down the track.”
According to Greg Smith, fire services have an obligation to provide appropriate safety equipment to volunteer firefighters.
“If that equipment is proven to be inadequate then there is a chance fire services could be found liable for illnesses caused by the inadequate protective equipment,” Mr Smith said.
Meanwhile, Ophelia Haragli continues to collect funds and organise distribution of masks to brigades who want them.
“My dream is to roll out masks to every single volunteer firefighter until the rules change and the RFS issues them.”