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 COVID-19 advice for Victorian government schools 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.
- Smoke from a fire can impact air quality. Poor air quality can affect the health and wellbeing of students and staff.
- People more sensitive to poor air quality (for example, during smoke events) include children 14 years and younger, people with heart and lung conditions (including asthma), pregnant women and those older than 65.
- To be prepared for days of poor air quality, it is recommended that schools:
- ensure that student health support plans , asthma action and all other relevant medical advice forms are up to date – refer to the department’s Health Care Needs Policy
- review their Emergency Management Plan (staff login required) and their OHS risk register to ensure that poor air quality due to smoke is addressed – the school’s smoke procedure (detailed in the emergency management plan) may be used if you are not under direct threat from a fire and are in smoky conditions
- set up alerts in the VicEmergency , including for air quality in the area.
- If smoke can be seen or smelled outside, schools should check and monitor air quality via the Environment Protection Authority’s (EPA) EPA and .
- 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 .
- If schools have health concerns, they must seek medical advice by calling NURSE-ON-CALL on 1300 60 60 24 or call 000 for an ambulance if anyone has trouble breathing or chest tightness.
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:
- factory/building fires and smoke related to burning of chemicals or rubbish
- hazard reduction burning
- woodfire heaters
- 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
More serious symptoms of smoke exposure that require medical support or urgent medical attention include:
- chest tightness
- difficulty breathing.
Further information about smoke and air quality can be found on EPA’s .
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:
- include the management of poor air quality due to smoke from a fire as a fire hazard in their EMP, and smoke as an atmospheric contaminant in their OHS risk register – the recommended administrative control for the risk of exposure to smoke is the application of this policy
- consider checking for gaps in doors and windows and sealing these where possible
- work with parents and carers of students with heart and lung conditions to ensure that they have up-to-date student health support plans and, if applicable, asthma action
- be prepared to support students who may have behavioural and emotional responses to smoke, for example, due to change in routine or previous experience with a bushfire
- use the VicEmergency to set up notifications about local fires and poor air quality on a staff member’s mobile device. To set up these alerts, install the VicEmergency app through the App or Google and set up a ‘watch zone’ for the area surrounding your school. You will need to manually switch on alerts for air quality. Information about how to use the VicEmergency app and set up watch zones alerts can be found on the VicEmergency
- consider preparing ‘cleaner air spaces’ in a room at the school where it’s possible to manage entry and exit and doors and windows can be closed – refer to Supporting people when air quality is heavily impacted by bushfire for more information (note that this guidance was produced to assist local government but can be used more generally)
- consider using portable indoor air cleaners or air purifiers if they are available – for more information, refer toSmoke and portable indoor .
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 for information about the air quality in their area.
EPA uses 5 categories to describe air quality:
- 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:
- estimate the distance from you to a landmark that’s just visible (you can just see it)
- use this estimated distance and the EPA’s table of activity levels based on visibility, air health category and smoke 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 and EPA 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
- 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 or asthma action
- 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 .
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 Managing and Reporting 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.
- Bushfire and Grassfire Preparedness
- Duty of Care
- Emergency and Critical Incident Management Planning
- Health Care Needs
- OHS Risk Management
- Shelter-in-Place Buildings
- Reporting and Managing School Incidents (including emergencies)
- Risk Management – Schools
- Ventilation and Air Purification
Reviewed 21 February 2023