Injured firefighter praises safety

A firefighter who was partially paralysed on the job has praised the safety practices of the service.

Tom Scott was badly injured in 1995 when a fire truck in which he was a passenger rolled while going to an incident near Taupo.

"The culture is generally based around safety all the time - certainly at an incident and on station," Mr Scott said.

"It's very much teamwork and backing each other up and safe practices."

There were 21 recorded injuries in the Bay of Plenty fire fighting area last year, costing $29,780. Two resulted in time taken off work.

After Mr Scott's accident, driver training and truck preparedness were improved, he said.

The service also gave up on trying to downgrade the number of staff on a shift from four to three, Mr Scott said.

"We were really understaffed maintaining that shift system.

"After our accident they lost our national referendum and politically they had to let that programme go and repopulate the professional staff of the fire service back up to where it should have been."

After 17 years, Mr Scott has rejoined the fire service, this time in a support role at the Te Puke brigade.

"I still think it's a really safe place [to work], bearing in mind that firefighters are always running into situations that everyone else is running away from.

"You can't mitigate every danger, but when firefighters are needed they are there."

Mr Scott also took part in the Firefighter Sky Tower Challenge in Auckland last year.

He climbed the 1103 steps in 2 hours, 9 minutes and 32 seconds.

Using a brace to lock his inoperative leg, he muscled his way to the top of the building supporting much of his weight on the stairwell handrails.

Of the country's 1789 fulltime and 8371 volunteer firefighters, 448 were injured last year, resulting in $1.2 million in injury-related costs.

The fire service responded to 68,000 callouts last year.

Fire service spokeswoman Karlum Lattimore said the organisation had "robust" systems to respond to accidents or near misses. "If there's something wrong with some piece of equipment or something, we get on to that pretty quickly."

Ms Lattimore said the latest alert was around brass couplings stolen by scrap-metal thieves from fire hose connections on commercial buildings.

A replacement aluminium coupling subsequently burst. No one was injured but protocols had been put in place to prevent it happening again.

"We don't actually get that many guys injured, it's occasional things like jumping off moving equipment when they shouldn't be," she said.

Older occupational injuries which rarely occurred these days included smoke inhalation, burns and broken ankles from firemen poles, she said. "They'd come screaming down the poles and break their ankles ... that's why they don't use the poles any more."

Last year 115 burns-related injuries were recorded nationally - making it the sixteenth most common injury for firefighters.

Seven of the recorded injures occurred at the fire Service's national training centre - compared with 30 in 2009.

New Zealand Professional Firefighters Union secretary Derek Best said firefighting was dangerous work, and injuries were relatively common.

But the union had worked with the fire service to prevent and minimise the number of deaths and injuries on the job, he said.

"With the best will in the world you can't make absolutely perfect protective clothing - there's always a compromise.

"Firefighting is an inherently dangerous occupation and yet the injury rate, and certainly the death rate, is a lot lower than in a lot of other industries."

Contrary to popular belief, burns weren't the biggest risk to firefighters, rather "the insidious exposure to a lot of chemicals and the potential for that to cause cancers", Mr Best said. "It's not necessarily the big dramatic incidents where you know there are chemicals there, but if there is a fire and furniture and things like that are burning, they produce all sorts of chemicals."

The last career firefighter killed on the job was in April 2008, when Senior Station Officer Derek Lovell died after an explosion at the Icepak Coolstore in Tamahere.

Rural firefighter Barry Keen, 52, died in April 2009 when a burning tree branch fell on him as his crew turned up at a burn-off near Ashburton.

By the numbers

  • 22 career firefighters at Tauranga Fire Station, 16 at Mount Manganui and 15 at Greerton.

  • 21 recorded injuries in the Bay of Plenty firefighting area in 2011, costing $29,780. Two resulted in time off work.

  • 20 recorded injuries in 2010, costing $23,999. One resulted in time off work.

  • 23 recorded injuries in 2009, costing $16,897. None resulted in time off work.

Most common injuries (nationally)

  • Lumbar sprain - 1010

  • Neck sprain - 414

  • Thoracic sprain - 289

  • Shoulder/upper arm sprain - 273

  • Ankle sprain - 263

- Bay of Plenty Times

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