education.vic.gov.au

Policy

This policy supports schools to prepare for and minimise the potential health risks for students and staff when smoke from fire impacts air quality.

Please refer to the School Operations Guide and the Ventilation and Air Purification Policy for information about COVID-19 and school ventilation. Action to protect students and staff during periods of poor outdoor air quality takes priority over ventilation to prevent COVID-19 transmission risk.

Summary

Details

Smoke from fires is a mixture of different sized particles, water vapour and gases. Fine particles are the main hazard in bushfire smoke and are small enough to be breathed into a person’s lungs and potentially impact health. For this reason, schools must be prepared for days when air quality is categorised by the EPA as ‘Poor’ or worse (Poor, Very Poor or Extremely Poor) and take action to reduce the potential health risks.

About air quality

Air quality is determined by the concentration of pollutants in the air. Pollutants can come from:

  • bushfires
  • factory/building fires and smoke related to burning of chemicals or rubbish
  • hazard reduction burning
  • woodfire heaters
  • transport
  • industry processes.

Impact of smoke on health

Most healthy people can tolerate short exposure to smoke. People known to be more sensitive to smoke exposure include:

  • children 14 years and younger
  • people with heart and lung conditions (including asthma)
  • pregnant people
  • those older than 65.

Common symptoms of smoke exposure include:

  • itchy eyes
  • sore throat
  • runny nose
  • coughing.

More serious symptoms of smoke exposure that require medical support or urgent medical attention include:

  • wheezing
  • chest tightness
  • difficulty breathing.

Further information about smoke and air quality can be found on EPA’s websiteExternal Link .

Managing risks relating to smoke exposure

Schools can reduce the potential health risks of smoke exposure by planning for, and responding to, changes in air quality.

Planning for days when air quality is affected by smoke

In preparation for poor air quality days, it is recommended that schools:

How to assess air quality

Air quality can change quickly and can vary at different locations. Where schools are concerned about the air quality, they can check EPA AirWatchExternal Link for information about the air quality in their area.

EPA uses 5 categories to describe air quality:

  • Good
  • Fair
  • Poor
  • Very Poor
  • Extremely Poor

Knowing the category allows schools to make informed decisions about the management of health risks.

If you don’t have access to EPA AirWatch you can look at landmarks. They become harder to see when there’s smoke in the air. To visually assess air quality:

  1. estimate the distance from you to a landmark that’s just visible (you can just see it)
  2. use this estimated distance and the EPA’s table of activity levels based on visibility, air health category and smoke sensitivityExternal Link to identify the advised activity levels.

If air quality is categorised by the EPA as ‘Poor’ or below, schools should take the actions outlined below, and if applicable, any actions relating to air quality outlined in their EMP.

Supporting students and staff when air quality is affected by smoke

If smoke can be seen or smelled outside, or a VicEmergency alert for air quality is received, it is recommended that schools:

  • check VicEmergencyExternal Link and EPA AirWatchExternal Link for information on local air quality
  • if the air quality is categorised as ‘Poor’ or worse, schools must follow the EPA’s Air quality and outdoor activity: guide for schools and early childhood centresExternal Link
  • close windows and doors and where necessary, use wet towels to cover gaps in doors and windows to keep out smoke – schools should also use the designated cleaner air space if prepared
  • switch air conditioners to ‘recirculate’ if they have this function and switch off evaporative air conditioners as they draw air from outside into the indoor school environment – consider using portable indoor air cleaners or air purifiers if they are available
  • closely monitor students with heart or lung conditions and follow the medical advice outlined in student health support plans (Word)External Link or asthma action plansExternal Link
  • manage other hazards and potential health impacts, such as heat and psychological stress
  • notify parents and staff about the air quality conditions and actions taken by the school
  • encourage employees who may have greater sensitivity to smoke, including those with heart or lung conditions (including asthma), pregnant people, and those over 65, to initiate their personal treatment plans
  • if there are health concerns, seek medical help by calling NURSE-ON-CALL on 1300 60 60 24 or call 000 for an ambulance if anyone has trouble breathing or chest tightness
  • open windows and doors to let in fresher air once the outdoor air quality has improved – this is because smoke can also impact on indoor air quality.

Schools may wish to consider whether to use P2 and N95 face masks. Fitted properly, a P2 or N95 mask can filter out most of the fine particles in the air during smoky conditions. However, these masks are not designed for children. For more information, refer to the Department of Health factsheet: Bushfires – Guidelines for use of face masksExternal Link .

Reporting requirements

If the air quality impacts on student or staff health, safety and wellbeing or on the continuity of school operations, schools should call the Incident Support and Operations Centre (24 hour, 7 days) on 1800 126 126 and follow the Reporting and Managing School Incidents (including emergencies) Policy.

Schools do not generally close when the air quality is affected by smoke. However, where there is a reportable impact on site, schools may contact the Regional Manager, Emergency Management and Operations or SEIL for advice on what actions to take.

Relevant legislation

Department policy supporting schools to prepare for and minimise the potential health risks for students and staff when smoke from fire impacts air quality

Reviewed 13 May 2022

Policy last updated

4 November 2021

Scope

  • Schools

Contact

Health Promotion, Prevention and Advice Unit

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