As we brace ourselves for an unprecedented heatwave here in Australia, and more bushfires — part of what may be one of the most brutal, relentless bushfire seasons since modern records began — many of our thoughts are with the firefighters battling those blazes. Well, mine certainly are. And I hope those of our Prime Minister, Scott Morrison are too, though we would have no way of knowing as he enjoys a “private” family holiday reportedly in Hawaii and he has not publicly commented on the unfolding disaster in recent days.
Watching these brave men and women return to the fire frontline time and time again has brought back some rather painful memories for me from my previous life in New York City — those of 9/11 and its immediate aftermath.
The thing about life in New York City is that you kind of get to know the (mostly) guys at your local “house”. They often leave the garage doors open and set up lawn chair outside and chat to locals.
When I lived downtown, I passed the guys at my local house every day on my way to work, and I often stopped for a bit of a chin wag. When I worked as a nanny while still studying at New York University, I would frequently bring the boys I cared for to the local house, which happened to be the same one where the original Ghostbusters film was set. The guys would generously let the boys climb around on the equipment whilst also patiently taking photos with countless movie inspired tourists.
Given this, I will never forget what happened the day after I watched the towers crumble from the roof of my building on the corner of Mott and Houston. I walked past the tank (yes a tank) parked on my corner and went down the street to the local pizza shop to get a slice – it was one of the few places opened and it was packed. When someone came in to collect a huge order marked for the local firehouse, someone else shouted, “Are those for the guys, can we chip in?” Then, the person collecting the pizzas said, “No, they’re all dead. I’m getting these for the families and friends.”
Then, silence. In that moment, the enormity of what had happened and the toll it had taken on many in our own little corner of the city who we were all very fond of – many houses downtown lost every person on shift that day – struck us.
So, when Australia’s Prime Minister says of the firefighters currently battling Australia’s unprecedented bushfire blazes that “they want to be there”, I do find that incredibly offensive. Somehow, I think that is no more true of these brave souls than it was of those who ran into the Twin Towers on 9/11. But they do the job that needs to be done, running towards danger. And for that they deserve all of our undying respect and gratitude.
But they also deserve our practical support.
I, therefore, found even more offensive the suggestion that Australia’s volunteer firefighters should not be provided with anything less than the best equipment and support to do their jobs – and to protect them from ongoing health consequences associated with that work.
Last week, when asked by The Guardian Australia, Morrison dismissed concerns that the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, the largest volunteer firefighting force in the world, was being stretched beyond endurance and he did not address concerns that the crews were crowdsourcing donations for food, water and equipment.
Also last week, another piece in the Guardian stated that Rural Fire service members had been warned about crowdfunding for protective masks, “without the appropriate authority”. According to the Guardian, in an operational memo sent to brigade leaders, RFS deputy commissioner Rob Rogers said the organisation’s leadership was “concerned” that crowdfunding campaigns were being set up “without appropriate authority”.
When I read that, I think literal steam came out of my ears.
At issue was the fact that firefighters were crowdfunding in order to purchase more sophisticated P3 masks to protect them from smoke inhalation, as opposed to relying on the disposable P2 masks that are standard issue.
One RFS volunteer and physician, who asked to remain anonymous, told the Guardian Australia that while well-fitted P2 masks were “somewhat effective”, there were “a lot of problems” using them in a fire ground where “getting a good fit is difficult”.
“While that might be manageable with regular mask replacement in a two-hour incident,” he said, “it is unsatisfactory during 12-hour shifts, much of it in heavy smoke.”
Back to the NYC firefighters. 343 firefighters died on 9/11. Since then, a further 200 have died from Ground Zero related illness, basically from breathing in the toxins and fumes at the site that has caused a lot of cancer. The story of Luis Alvarez, the Champion of 9/11 first responders who pleaded with Congress earlier this year to extend health benefits to those police, firefighters and other emergency workers affected, particularly broke my heart. He died in June of this year.
So while it may seem like hyperbole to transfer that perspective here to Australia, I have zero time for a Government or leadership of any kind that is not fully committed to giving our volunteer Australian firefighters battling these unprecedented bush fires everything they need to do their job well — and not pay the price with their own health further down the line.
It’s the very least we can do.
Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica