Melbourne’s recent thunderstorm-driven asthma incident is now under investigation by the Victorian Coroner, to review the systematic issues associated with the event. Eight people died after the weather turned suddenly on 21 November, with a cool change sweeping across the state, causing pollen, normally too large to be inhaled, to explode into tiny particles. These were concentrated by the thunderstorm winds at ground level and inhaled by the population around the city. Many people that suffered from allergies or asthma were affected, with some reporting a shortness of breath and chest constrictions, and others with vulnerable respiratory systems suffering additional complications from the weather event.
Across Melbourne, more than 8,500 people presented at hospitals, while the Triple Zero emergency service took more than 1,900 calls in a five hour period, including 140 Code One calls that required immediate assistance. As reported by the Herald Sun, Ambulance Victoria and the Minister for Health Jill Hennessy admitted they were not prepared for such a large-scale event and likened the volume and severity of the calls, “It was genuinely like having 150 bombs going off at once right across metropolitan Melbourne ... and we’ve just never encountered anything of the scale and the scope (of that).” The Inspector General for Emergency Management has been instructed to undertake an immediate review of the event, to look at the surge system employed to tackle the incident and their effectiveness, with the initial findings due in early January.
Emergency response organisations from all over the world are reviewing the Victorian event and the resulting response requirements to establish best practice, should such an incident be repeated. Since the incident Victoria’s Chief Health Officer hasissued several warnings to the public when there is a potential weather change that may again affect asthma suffers. In each case they have urged people to update and be familiar with their asthma management plans and ensure they have access to their medication.
It is important to consider, as part of risk and emergency plans, the potential for a surge event and how to identify the surge as it begins to occur. In Victoria, all off duty paramedics were called back into service while fire and police services provided transport to hospitals, emergency departments increased their staff and put into action their ‘mass patient’ protocols.