Behind the mask: RFS trials to go beyond next bushfire season

Dominic Giannini 31 August 2020
RFS members

RFS members are using masks with the same filtration rate as the disposable masks Canberrans used over the summer. Photo: Region Media.

A trial to determine which masks are most effective for ACT Rural Fire Service (RFS) volunteers is likely to extend well beyond the next bushfire season, ACT RFS Chief Officer Rohan Scott has said.

ACT RFS volunteers receive disposable P2 masks, like the ones purchased by many Canberrans when smoke blanketed the city earlier this year. There is now a push to upgrade to the bulkier but more effective P3 masks.

ACT RFS Chief Officer Rohan Scott says masks trials can take years.

“It is a very complex part of [personal protective equipment] to give our members it is not just a case of issuing a mask,” he said.

“Fullface, half-face – there are different considerations for those. There are different filtration types. We need to look an ongoing stock supplies, particularly with the COVID situation. The [P2 masks] fit better with a silicone or a medical-grade rubber … but the filtration rate [on the disposable maks] is the same.

“What we also have to look at is the metabolic weight and the fitness levels of our members because they do restrict them quite considerably.”

Giulia Jones

Giulia Jones says volunteers are using decades-old supplies. Photo: Supplied.

The ACT RFS has received input and feedback from all brigades about what masks they would prefer or what works best for them. However, a substantial amount of volunteers did not provide feedback, Mr Scott said.

“We have had input from all brigades, we did some trials during the last season and we have also conducted some controlled experiences in the smokehouse where we were trying different types of masks.

“We have also been working with the NSW RFS to see what they are doing in the same context of better respiratory protection for their members.”

A NSW trial into the effectiveness of P3 masks for volunteers is expected to take two years to implement. Mr Scott said it would be a quicker process in the ACT because of smaller volunteer numbers.

However, opposition emergency services spokesperson Giulia Jones rejected Mr Scott’s assertion that the Territory would be ahead of the curve.

“There are members of the RFS that are in possession of documents that are over 10 years old that are asking for improvements to these masks so I would not go so far to say that you [ACT RFS] are ahead of the curve,” she said.

Ms Jones also said the current masks were combustible, but Mr Rohan said he had not seen evidence of this.

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