We say it all the time – the role of an emergency service volunteer is invaluable and diverse. What we don’t say all that often is just how challenging it can be and here’s a case in point.
As you see from the ABC article, when members of the VFRS joined their career colleagues to attend a crash that saw a truck roll into a paddock owned by Mt Short VBFB members, individuals from all three services found themselves working together to manage an unusually complex and difficult scene.
Note: The AVBFB offers its most sincere condolences to the families and friends of those involved in the tragedy and has removed/edited some content that may have caused undue distress.
On the remote stretch of Western Australia’s south-east coast between Ravensthorpe and Albany, an early-morning call-out to a serious crash is nothing unusual for local emergency service workers.
But when they were warned the truck involved in the December 13 crash was carrying beehives, the volunteers knew the call-out would require special care.
The truck had rolled off the Brookton Highway around 3:45 that morning after the driver lost control.
It was when the sun emerged about an hour later the volunteer fire and rescue officers knew they were in trouble.
“Once the sun was fully up, [the bees] were very active and we had to retreat … everyone was getting stung,” Ravensthorpe volunteer captain Gary Webster said.
Albany fire station officer Greg Marshall said the bees would find any gap in the firefighters’ clothing and protective suits.
“You would hear them buzzing around your face and your head, most of the stings were to the head, I stopped counting around 12 [stings],” Mr Marshall said.
“It is quite frustrating because you can feel the bees in there, you know you are going to get stung eventually and you just, yeah, cop it on the chin really.”
Determined to mount rescue despite the risk
The volunteer officers were determined to try to save the two men trapped inside the vehicle, with the help of workers from nearby wheat collection bins, who refused to leave the scene despite the bees attacking them.
The first responders put on what protective equipment they had, including breathing apparatus, and tried spraying the bees with water and foam.
However, the measures did little to calm the insects.
“One of our firefighters got stung on the throat a couple of times and I was actually quite concerned, I had a pocket knife on me and was scraping the skin out of his throat,” Mr Webster said.
The truck driver died as a result of his injuries, but his passenger was successfully rescued.
The seriousness of the crash meant the volunteers kept trying to push through the pain of the stings.
“It was quite amazing how much [the bees] could actually restrict your work, we just had to work quickly… it just got so bad you could not work in there,” Mr Webster said.
Stings left first responders in hospital
Reinforcement firefighters were eventually called in from Albany to help carve a path through the swarm.
In the meantime, the volunteers had to be treated in hospital for the stings.
“Quite a few of our firefighters got stung and two of them had to go with the ambulance to the hospital just to treat them,” Mr Webster said.
Once the career firefighters arrived, they put on full body “splash suits”, normally used when responding to chemical spills.
The suits can only be donned for a short time, due to the danger of occupants overheating.
“The heat build-up was the main concern because we could not take in fluids, yet we were losing a lot of fluids, you could feel your gloves filling up with water basically,” Mr Marshall said.
“I was concerned for everybody; I mean I was feeling it and I know the other three were.”
The firefighters only stopped work to remove stings from each others faces, drink water and take anti-histamine tablets.
While little surprises the veteran firefighter anymore, he said the incident would stay with him for a long time.
“We do get a lot of weird jobs … but yeah, this was certainly different,” Mr Marshall said.
“I’ll hopefully never see another one like it.”
He said the stings were nothing compared to the heartache felt by the family of the deceased driver just a couple of weeks before Christmas.
Christien de Garis | ABC Esperance