Australian firefighters in battle over compensation as experts link cancers to bushfire smoke

Bruce Barnes has been with the Lavington Rural Fire Brigade on the NSW-Victoria border for four decades.

But according to Bruce, he’s no hero.

He doesn’t even think he’s brave.

In fact, more than anything, he says he’s disgusted.

After years of service fighting fires, he’s been diagnosed with three cancers that his specialists say are all linked to bushfire-smoke inhalation.

And because of this, the volunteer firefighter has taken up arms against the NSW government on not one, but two fronts.

The first is over an anomaly in the state’s workers compensation laws that mean emergency service workers get smaller payouts than other employees.

The second is over delays to safety reforms for volunteers recommended following the disastrous 2020 Black Summer bushfires.

And time is of the essence: Bruce’s cancers are terminal, and he says, there’s no way of knowing just when they will take his life.

“All they can do is chemo,” Bruce, 62, said. “There’s no real treatment, no cure at this stage.”

The volunteer captain, who is a truck driver by trade, signed up to the Lavington brigade when he was just 16.

He’s attended major bushfires, been part of interstate strike teams and responded to call-outs for house, tip and car fires.

But all those exposures have added up over time, and in 2014 Bruce was diagnosed with bowel cancer.

Harrowing rounds of chemotherapy and radiation followed and he lost part of his bowel.

Despite his diagnosis, during the catastrophic 2020 bushfires Bruce was out the front, leading his brigade, helping to save multiple properties during what he described as “the worst fire season” he’d ever seen.

Crews were unable to escape the smoke even when they retreated from the fireground to the firehouse because it too was blanketed in smoke for weeks.

In a further blow, shortly after the threat of the 2020 fires had passed, routine scans showed Bruce had developed secondary sarcomas on his liver and lungs known as EHE, or epithelioid hemangioendothelioma.

His specialist told him it was also linked to his firefighting career.

Then, another year on, the hardened captain was diagnosed with prostate cancer, also one of the 12 cancers linked to bushfire smoke.

Yet, despite facing death three times over, Bruce Barnes continues to volunteer.

“Some days I go [to the RFS shed] by myself, I sit in the chair and I think, ‘What am I doing here?’ But I keep going back,” he said.

“I suppose it gets in your blood a bit.”

With cancer eradicating Bruce’s ability to continue his day job as a truck driver, he relies on workers compensation.

However, the father of five has discovered emergency service workers in NSW get about half the amount in lump-sum payments for permanent impairments compared to other workers.

“I couldn’t get my head around why they would do that to volunteers and police and SES workers in New South Wales,” Bruce said.

“It’s just not right.”

The legal loophole was inadvertently introduced alongside the very reforms firefighters campaigned for in 2015.

Under those changes, sums awarded for permanent impairment were not increased for emergency workers because the reforms only considered changes to 2012 laws, which emergency workers had previously been exempted from.

Ken Middleton from the Rural Fire Service Association said they were helping up to 40 members affected by the anomaly in the law.

“Effectively, they robbed us of half what we should get,” he said.

Following inquiries from the ABC, the NSW government said it had begun a preliminary review to streamline its workers compensation laws.

But it did not indicate whether permanent impairment payments for emergency service workers such as Bruce would be considered.

A NSW government spokesman said volunteer firefighters had access to a range of other benefits under the laws.

“They have entitlements to weekly payments, medical treatment expenses and a lump-sum death benefit,” a spokesman said.

NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Rob Rogers said he’d also had discussions with the NSW state government insurer.

“They’ve agreed to work with us on what would need to change to make sure that firefighters got the same amount,” he said.

Fight for better safety for volunteers
As his health battle continues, Bruce is concerned the RFS is not doing enough to protect volunteers from the known risks of bushfire smoke.

“They need to move quicker with the masks and looking after volunteers for safety,” he said.

The Firefighter Cancer Coalition, an organisation which works to reduce firefighters’ exposure to carcinogens, agrees.

It is concerned that nearly two years after the 2020 fires and numerous inquiries, basic reforms such as higher-grade P3 masks have yet to be rolled out nationally to every volunteer.

Founder Brett Carle said P2 masks were only dust masks that filtered out particulates and did not protect against toxic vapours and pollutants in bushfire smoke.

“It’s been decades that we’ve known about the limitations of the P2, but we’ve also known about the inherent dangers in bushfire smoke,” he said.

He was also concerned about the slow rollout of second sets of uniforms and washing machines to prevent volunteers wearing contaminated gear.

“The reality is that firefighters are dying of cancer now,” he said.

“We may not be able to control all of that, but we can certainly mitigate that.”

Following inquiries from the ABC, Commissioner Rogers announced P3 masks would be rolled out to every station in NSW from mid-February.

“Brigades will have that all in place for the next fire season,” he said.

“Just because these people volunteer, they still deserve the best protection that we can give them and that’s certainly my aim.”

Commissioner Rogers said they were well progressed with plans to give every volunteer two sets of uniforms, but had been hampered by supply chain issues during COVID-19.

They were also working on a “clean firefighter program” that aimed to make laundering available where possible, he said.

With more than 40 years RFS service behind him, including the last two at the helm, Commissioner Rogers agreed more education on the long-term impacts of smoke was needed.

“So we do talk about the laundering, smoke inhalation during our training programs, but it’s not to the point of the long-term effects of that and the potential carcinogens,” he said.

“That’s what we’ve got to fix.”

Further north in Queensland, Carolyn Johnson lives with the reality of what a lifetime of firefighting can mean for a family.

Her late husband, Geoff, was the captain of the Grantham Rural Fire Brigade, where Carolyn also volunteered.

Geoff spent three decades with the service before dying of prostate cancer in 2020, aged 62.

“Geoff loved to help other people. He was just an all-round good guy,” Carolyn said.

While prostate cancer is not uncommon in men of his age, for Carolyn it was the aggressive nature of Geoff’s cancer that rang alarm bells.

Research shows prostate cancer is strongly associated with firefighting careers, and is one of the 12 cancers linked to the work.

“The entire prostate was tumour,” Carolyn said. “The cancer continued to grow and it spread to almost every bone in his body.”

After decades fighting some of the worst fires in both Queensland and other states, Carolyn was convinced smoke was the likely culprit for her husband’s death.

“Masks were introduced quite late during our membership,” she said.

Despite paying such a heavy price for years of service, Carolyn is still a member of the Grantham Rural Fire Brigade.

What concerns her now is not her own safety, but that of other volunteers. She would like to see an annual medical check introduced for volunteers.

She said she knew of brigades that did not have washing machines to decontaminate fire gear and did not have higher-grade P3 masks available to every volunteer, with many still using paper P2 masks.

“We have all sorts of training but we don’t have any training, to my knowledge, on how we can keep ourselves safe,” she said.

Meeting the standards
A spokesperson for Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) said P2 masks met the Australian standards but higher-grade P3 masks were issued based on risk.

“QFES also issues gas detection devices in conjunction with P3 masks that warn users when they are entering an atmosphere in which the use of a P3 mask is needed,” they said in a statement.

“Through training, staff and volunteers are equipped with the skills and knowledge to limit their exposure.”

Families like the Johnsons and Barness say their request is simple. They want authorities to mitigate any risks they can in an inherently dangerous field.

“Geoff contracting cancer was the worst thing that could ever have happened to us,” Carolyn said.

“To see the heartache that that could cause another firefighter, another family, that’s something that I don’t want to see.”