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Shuswap fire chiefs applaud expanded cancer coverage for firefighters

‘A car fire is not a car fire anymore, it’s a toxic chemical dump’
Salmon Arm firefighters prepare to fight a residential fire near the corner of 20th Street NE and Okanagan Avenue in April 2022. (File photo)

“That’s good news.”

This was Sicamous Fire Chief Brett Ogino’s immediate response to news that cancer coverage for firefighters has been expanded to include thyroid and pancreatic cancer.

“They’re seeing our particular business is seeing cases that represent a higher level of risk,” said Ogino. “It’s good because it also makes firefighters more aware they need to be wearing their breathing protection.”

The BC Ministry of Labour issued a media release on Tuesday, Nov. 8, stating the province is amending the Firefighters’ Occupational Disease Regulation under the Workers Compensation Act. It is adding the two cancers to the existing list of cancers and heart diseases that firefighters are at increased risk of developing. If a firefighter develops one of the 18 listed cancers after a certain period of employment, reads the release, it is presumed the cancer arose from their employment.

Firefighters will be eligible for workers’ compensation benefits without having to prove the cancer is work-related.

Read more: Why cancer is deadlier than fire for firefighters in B.C.

Read more: Local firefighters to summit Calgary tower for good cause

“It makes it so much easier for the firefighter and their family to not have to be in front of a WorkSafe BC board and argue it’s a disease that was caused by their occupation,” said Salmon Arm Fire Chief Brad Shirley. “This way… it certainly makes it easier on the firefighters, and I think they absolutely deserve that for putting their lives on the line in any community – that’s the least we can do for them, the province can do for them.”

Increasingly, health risks for firefighters are from the proliferation of chemicals used in homes, vehicles, etc., Ogino noted. “A car fire is not a car fire anymore, it’s a toxic chemical dump.”

Adding to this, Sean Coubrough, Deputy Regional Fire Chief, Operations Management, with the Columbia Shuswap Regional District, said house fires are considered a “hazmat call.” He explained modern furnishings in homes are burning faster, “and the chemicals being released in these fires are significantly worse than the natural fibres used to make furnishings in the past.”

“Just because of the amount of off-gassing, the way our furnishings are now made with materials using hydrocarbons, and with hydrocarbons releasing in that fire, the fires are now hotter, they burn hotter,” said Coubrough. “Instead of having your 10 minutes to get out once the fire starts, you’ve got about three or four minutes…. That’s not from when the smoke alarm goes off, that’s from when the fire starts.”

Coubrough also applauded the news regarding extended cancer coverage, calling it a step in the right direction. He said fire departments have come a long way in order to prevent cancer.

“That comes down to new materials and turnout gear, new procedures in terms of keeping that gear away from us once we’ve been inside a fire…”

Shirley said when he first joined the fire department 40 years ago, self-contained breathing apparatuses were available but weren’t used nearly as much as they are today.

“Even if we’re going into a building where we’re not sure if there’s even smoke, firefighters will have their breathing apparatus donned in anticipation they’re going to use it,” said Shirley, stressing safety is a number one priority for firefighters from the day they’re recruited, and that the use of a breathing apparatus is critical.

“We do our absolute best – our number one priority is the safety of our firefighters but unfortunately, somehow, firefighters are still developing these diseases,” said Shirley.

According to the ministry release, B.C. has recognized occupational diseases for firefighters since 2005, when the Firefighters’ Occupational Disease Regulation was established. Additional types of occupational diseases for firefighters have since been added to the act and regulation. Cervical, ovarian and penile cancers were recently added to the regulation in April 2022. Changes to the act in 2018 included firefighting as an eligible occupation in the new presumption for mental-health disorders.
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Lachlan Labere

About the Author: Lachlan Labere

Editor of the Salmon Arm Observer, Shuswap Market, and Eagle Valley News. I'm always looking for new and exciting ways to keep our readers informed and engaged.
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