Nearly 20 people from the Geelong region who were exposed to dangerous chemicals at the Country Fire Authority’s Fiskville Training Centre have signed up to a potential class action.
Slater and Gordon class action lawyer Andrew Baker said the region was over represented on a list of close to 200 Victorians connected to the facility who had contacted the firm since health risks associated with the site became public late last year.
Mr Baker said about one third of the firm’s Fiskville clients had been diagnosed with cancer while others had a range of conditions including respiratory illnesses or auto-immune diseases.
“In the Geelong region itself, we are in dealing with a mix of clients including a number of people who are now suffering from illness after spending time at Fiskville,” Mr Baker said.
“We are also seeing family members who, sadly, have lost loved ones to illnesses that are now being linked to the training practices employed at Fiskville.”
Mr Baker said the firm was also being inundated with enquiries from CFA volunteers, career firefighters and others exposed to Fiskville who were yet to develop any associated illnesses.
“A lot of them are giving us statements and helping us paint a clear picture of what happened there and they also want to make sure their names and their stories are known in the event that they develop an illness down the track,” he said.
“It’s fair to say there is a lot of concern in the volunteer community about what might happen next.”
Point Lonsdale father of three Andrew Conlan was among those to contact Slater and Gordon following revelations of a link between training practices at Fiskville and a range of serious illnesses.
Now 47, Mr Conlan grew up on a farm next door to Fiskville and his mother and father both worked at the training facility during quiet periods on the farm.
“Our father was one of the pad operators who Professor Joy’s report recognised as some of those most at risk and mum worked in the kitchen,” Mr Conlan said.
His father died of heart disease and his mother died of bone cancer but it wasn’t until late last year that Mr Conlan and his siblings began to draw a solid connection between their parents’ illnesses and their work for the CFA.
“It was always a suspicion but this obviously strengthened when we saw the long list of people we knew well who were affected”, Mr Conlan said.
In June, the CFA released a report by Professor Rob Joy titled Fiskville: Understanding the Past to Inform the Future, which confirmed people at Fiskville were exposed to dangerous chemicals, including various carcinogens.
The report found people exposed to the facility in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Conlans were living next door, faced a serious increased risk of potentially life-threatening health complications.
“Myself, school mates and my two brothers and sister were exposed going to school every day,” Mr Conlan said.
Mr Conlan said he had contacted Slater and Gordon to safeguard his rights in the event that his exposure to Fiskville caused him to become sick.
“I can’t bring back my parents but I would be very angry now if I fell ill and my wife and three children were impacted,” he said.
He said he now carried little doubt that chemical exposure at Fiskville had contributed in some way to his parents’ early deaths.
“The research shows that, if you’ve got any sort of pre-disposition to heart disease – which dad did – then the pad is about the worst place you could be”, Mr Conlan said.
“Mum should have lived a long life but her mother outlived her and she only had a brief time with one of her grandchildren and has been deprived of time with nine others.”
Mr Baker said it would take many years for the full scale of the Fiskville tragedy to come to light.
“The real tragedy here is that these men and women have made enormous and unforseen sacrifices - many of which are yet to be realised – in fulfilling what they saw as their duty to keep Victorian communities safe,” Mr Baker said.
He said the firm was presently weighing up litigation options on behalf of its clients.
“A class action is certainly one of the potential mechanisms under consideration, as are individual test cases run to represent the circumstances of various groups of claimants,” he said.
Mr Baker called on the Baillieu Government to immediately introduce presumptive legislation that would bring Victorian firefighters’ rights into line with their colleagues on the Commonwealth Government’s payroll.
Under the Commonwealth’s presumptive legislation, enacted last year, a Commonwealth firefighter that contracts one of 12 prescribed cancers is able to claim workers compensation without the need to establish causation.