Chemicals biggest risk to firefighters

By Brendan Manning,

Despite the dangerous nature of firefighting, accidents are minimal, a training manager says.

Figures released under the Official Information Act show there were seven reported injuries at the Rotorua-based National Training Centre in 2011, 15 in 2010 and 30 in 2009.

"It is a dangerous occupation and the training is as realistic and as safe as we can make it," said centre manager Alan Cleator.

The most common injuries - sprains and strains - were suffered by twisting the wrong way and putting up ladders, Mr Cleator said.

"I had a guy on the last course who injured himself by tearing his Achilles tendon. That was purely just running across the concrete. It wasn't an accident as such, it just happened. I suppose the old thing of 'accidents do happen' happened to him."

One of the worst injuries was a trainee who broke his leg when he tripped over a fire hose, Mr Cleator said.

"It is a training centre and there are hundreds of students through every year.

We don't generate accidents by the nature of the training - it's all controlled."

There were 11 recorded injuries in the Central Lakes firefighting area in 2011, costing $9923. One resulted in time off work.

Of the country's 1789 full-time and 8371 volunteer firefighters, 448 were injured in 2011 - resulting in $1.2 million in injury-related costs.

The Fire Service responded to 68,000 callouts last year.

New Zealand 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 about 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."

Older occupational injures which rarely occurred these days included smoke inhalation, burns and broken ankles from firemen's 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."

There were 115 burns-related injuries recorded nationally last year - making it the 16th 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.

However, 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 at Tamahere.

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


By the numbers

  • 37 career firefighters at Rotorua Fire Station.

  • 11 recorded injuries in the Central Lakes firefighting area in 2011, costing $9923. One resulted in time taken off work.

  • 8 recorded injuries in 2010, costing $34,202. Three resulted in time taken off work.

  • 15 recorded injuries in 2009, costing $65,003. Three resulted in time taken off work.


Most common injuries (nationally)

  • Lumbar sprain - 1010

  • Neck sprain - 414

  • Thoracic sprain - 289

  • Shoulder/upper arm sprain - 273

  • Ankle sprain - 263

- Rotorua Daily Post

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