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Comment: February 2013

A year ago March, our cover story was about three firefighters with cancer.

February 1, 2013 
By Laura King

A year ago March, our cover story was about three firefighters with cancer.

Tony Lippers, the deputy fire chief in Caledon, Ont., had just had surgery for esophageal cancer. Tony was determined to help others who experienced the bureaucratic rigmarole that he encountered.

Ken Day, the fire chief in LaSalle, Ont., died of colon cancer in the summer of 2011. Ken’s name was one of 12 added to the list of 1,111 Canadian firefighters who have died on the job or as a result of an illness caused by fire fighting, and inscribed on the Canadian Fallen Firefighters monument in Ottawa, which was unveiled in September.

Hector Babin, the fire chief in tiny Eel Brook, N.S., died in November. I last saw Hector in June at FDIC Atlantic. We had a great chat at Acadia University’s The Axe pub while listening to Dave and Nick Carroll – the Sons of Maxwell – play fantastic Maritime music. Hector, as always, was positive and funny and determined to beat the disease.

In every issue of this magazine, on page 7, we list firefighter deaths – often deaths from cancer deemed to have been caused by inhaling carcinogens while fighting fires or overhauling scenes.

All firefighters now know they can get cancer from doing their jobs, and that wearing personal protective equipment can prevent that from happening.

Many fire departments now monitor carbon monoxide levels at fires to determine when it’s safe for firefighters to remove their face pieces.

But the Burlington Fire Department in Ontario is going one step further, monitoring all structure fires for hydrogen cyanide – the so-called toxic twin of CO; it is determined that its young recruits will have lower rates of cancer, thyroid problems and other health issues by observing the department’s new standard operating guideline on HCN and by putting on their faces pieces sooner and leaving them on longer.

We did our first story on HCN in June 2007. It was written by Carlin Riley and Steve Young of the Kitchener Fire Department, who knew then that firefighters ought to wear their SCBA and face pieces until the air is completely free of HCN, but at the time most gas detectors did not monitor for HCN.

Now, Capt. Steve Jones of the Burlington Fire Department, who learned about HCN at an IAFC hazmat conference in 2010 and became passionate about protecting his colleagues from the effects of the gas, has been asked to write a guidance note for all Ontario fire departments about HCN, and is determined to affect a paradigm shift among firefighters so that wearing PPE all the time is rote.

Firefighters take risks to save lives, and taxpayers respect them for doing so.  Taking unnecessary risks with their own lives is foolhardy.

Information about HCN is widely available and the cost of an HCN monitoring program for your department is reasonable. 
Even without a monitoring program, the protection is at your fingertips.

Wear your PPE. All the time.

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