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September 9, 2015
By Laura King


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Sept. 9, 2015, Toronto – It used to be that when I sat in a room full of (mostly male, mostly 40-plus) chief fire officers there was a certain . . . similarity. Some in the room were lean, fit and healthy. Many others not so much.

Sitting at the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC) health and safety seminar in Toronto Tuesday, with more than 130 delegates – chiefs, deputies, firefighters who are members of health and safety committees – the view is somewhat different; some younger chief officers (or maybe I’m just older!), more lean, more fit, more role models and examples of healthy lifestyles.

There was lots of fruit on the breakfast table yesterday morning, along with the sausages, bacon and – really? – muffins. And a commitment by government – according to Labour Minister Kevin Flynn, who spoke Tuesday morning – to firefighter health and safety, both physical and mental.

Dr. Glen Selkirk, a kinesiologist, probably lost most of the crowd with his way-too scientific PowerPoint slides and text too fine for some eyes, but his message hit home: we can combat aging by staying fit, managing body mass index and, in essence, working twice as hard as our younger counterparts.

“Exercise helps,” he said, the obvious understatement of the day. And strength training is key to endurance.

Aging, the negative effects of shift work, accelerated hearing loss, increased risk of injury and disability, cancer, cardiovascular risk factors – all scary stuff for this profession.

Which is why it’s important to be screened. And therein lies the issue of the day.

“What has to happen is that we have to change the culture . . . through education, workshops, training . . . ,” Selkirk said.

Selkirk and his team of researchers, working with the OAFC’s Candidate Testing Service, are developing a First Responder Prevention and Wellness Program, which, in his words, is “to help maintain the career health and wellness of Ontario’s first responders through clinical evaluation, early detection and prevention education.”

The Ontario program is supposed to align with the IAFF’s wellness and fitness initiative and the OAFC’s Road to Mental Readiness program announced this summer.

The key is non-punitive screening (plus confidentiality) and convincing firefighters that it’s important.

And that requires a wellness paradigm shift, Selkirk said, so that the program can be implemented to combat the aging physical capacity of career firefighters and, even more importantly, volunteers.

It’s not rocket science. Any more than wearing your seatbelt on the way to a call, keeping your PPE on during overhaul, washing your balaclava, and cleaning your bunker gear. But there are hurdles to screening aging firefighters – all firefighters – that can only be dealt with at the grassroots (union) level.

Regardless, as I sit here in a room with 125 men – I’m counting five women (one chief, one deputy chief, two municipal health and safety types, and me) – who spend a lot of time sitting in seminars and behind desks and at council meetings, it seems that the paradigm is shifting; for the most part. I see toned physiques, salad on lunch plates and glasses of water instead of cans of Coke.

Those 125 gentlemen – most are chief officers – have bought in, obviously, because they’re here, the week after Labour Day, learning more about the health and safety of their firefighters. As one chief who stopped to chat as I was sitting in the hallway writing this noted, it’s the chief officers from the other 300 Ontario departments who are not here and, perhaps, don’t know what they don’t know. And that’s a shame.

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I hate clichés, but talk about a can of worms. This can, particular to the Province of Ontario, involves updating Ontario Regulation 714-94, which deals with things like PPE, head protection, enclosed cabs, seating positions and aerial-truck structure.

Long story short, the regulation needs to be re-worked for the 21st century, so the committee that’s working on that project wondered out loud at the OAFC’s health and safety seminar Tuesday afternoon how broad the changes should be, and whether potential changes might involve amending legislation.

As Section 21 committee co-chair Andy Kostiuk noted, “we have to sort out how intense these renewed regs would be.”

While there seemed to be agreement among delegates that the regulation is stale, OAFC first vice-president Steve Hernan wants more details and the terms of reference for making any agreed-upon changes.

Delegates weren’t sure which legislation could potentially be involved – the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Fire Protection and Prevention Act, or both.

Essentially, Kostiuk said, Tuesday’s discussion was exploratory, to determine interest and need for changes to the regulation.

“We’re just bringing it up for discussion now,” Kostiuk said. “If we’re going to redo it do we do it grander now? It’s a three-year project just to update the current one.”

In Ontario, police and EMS services are governed by much more specific regulations than fire, which relies, save the regulation in question, on occupational health and safety guidelines.

A can of worms indeed.


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