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A Fair-Go for Our Firefighters

A recent survey showed that Firefighting is the second most respected profession in Australia.  And that’s not surprising: every day, all around Australia, firefighters put their personal safety at risk to save lives, preserve property and serve the community. The immediate risks firefighters face are pretty obvious but, sadly, it’s the less-obvious, longer term risks that are even more lethal. What most of us don’t know – and I’ve been learning quickly – is that that firefighters are much more likely to die of cancer than burns.

It is the toxins released by fires that actually pose the greatest hazard to firefighters.  Plastics are increasingly prevalent in every aspect of our daily life and almost every fire in houses, buildings and cars, will involve burning plastics. The toxins and carcinogens they release then seep through firefighters' uniforms and are absorbed through their skin. Benzene, dioxins, formaldehyde, ammonia and countless others... As a result, even though firefighters begin their careers in better health than the average person, alarmingly, after several years on the job they become 5 to 10 times more likely to contract certain kinds of cancers.

Despite advances in technology there is no way to produce a uniform which can protect from these hazards. That’s because the uniforms need to breathe so that firefighters don’t overheat from the inside. With the air that enters the uniform so too enter these chemicals. It is not possible to control the risk firefighters face – it is just the nature of their work.

Until now, it has been almost impossible for firefighters to gain compensation or support for their families when they have been diagnosed with these cancers because it is so hard to establish which particular fire actually caused the cancer.  Facing a serious or terminal illness leaves them in no position to take on an expensive, time-consuming and emotionally-draining legal battle and so they don’t – and they and their families are left without support. There have been very few, if any, successful claims.

Earlier this year, my Greens colleague MP Adam Bandt introduced a bill to deal with this unjust situation: the Safety, Rehabilitationand Compensation Amendment (Fair Protection for Firefighters) Bill 2011.  If the bill is passed, it will mean that when fire-fighters contract certain types of cancer, it will be automatically assumed, and treated as if it is a work-related injury – relieving the firefighter from having to prove that this was the case.  Fair compensation for them and their families would follow.

The cancers covered by the bill have been identified by extensive studies to be associated with exposure to fires. It would still be open for a person defending the claim to argue that the cancer was not work-related but the starting point is a recognition of the hazards that firefighters face every day in just doing their work.

The bill is currently the subject of a Senate inquiry and, as a participating member, I recently met with officers at the SA Fire Service Headquarters to discuss the very real risks firefighters face -just in a day’s work- and to get an overview of the uniforms and gear available to protect them.  I also attended a hearing in Melbourne where we were briefed on the chemical hazards in a fire environment and heard about firefighters who have died from cancer without recourse to compensation. And, while I am all in favour of experiential learning, I’m not sure how I’ll go next month when I travel to Brisbane to experience firsthand what it’s like for a firefighter to walk through a wall of fire!  I am assured the protective gear will keep us safe from the flames (and, being a controlled environment, the toxins will be low).  I’m reassured by the hope that they won’t want to lose a clutch of Senators in one go – it would look far too careless – although a singeing of Senators has a certain ring to it!!

I think this is an exceptionally important bill. Similar legislation is in effect in most provinces of Canada and many states in the US.  I’m sure that most Australians would agree that it’s only fair that if a firefighter gets cancer that was most likely caused by their job, then they should be provided with the support and the rehabilitation they need. What is really gratifying is that Liberal MP, Russell Broadbent and Labor MP, Maria Vamvakinou are jointly sponsoring the bill and I’m hopeful that there will be broad, multipartisan support for this long overdue reform.


To watch the YouTube video, and see photos of Penny's "Baptism of Fire" (sorry! couldn't resist!) click here.

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