Comment June 2017: Fire Fighting in Canada celebrates 60 years

Progress trumps tradition
May 24, 2017
Written by
I remember being surprised – appalled, really – when I started learning about firefighting gear and SOGs, hydrogen cyanide, and cancer rates, that firefighters had been foolish enough to doff protective gear during overhaul or at car or dumpster fire, and inhale toxins.


It made no sense to me that if there was soot, dirt and smoke in the air it was OK to remove BA and carry on, coughing and spitting, and assume invincibility.

Everyone knows better now. Hygiene programs for contaminated gear are the norm, and young firefighters are setting examples for veterans – refusing to expose themselves to potentially cancer-causing elements.

Understanding the link between fire fighting and cancer, and the production of particulate-protecting gear, enables firefighters to do their jobs with less risk of developing illnesses.

Our cover story on page 10 about particulate-protecting hoods is nicely juxtaposed with our 60th anniversary feature on pages 6, 7, and 8. We asked firefighters what they think is the most significant development in fire fighting in the last 60 years; the answers were insightful – and all relate to firefighter health and safety: thermal imaging cameras; smoke alarms; standards; incident command; accountability; better trucks; science; sharing information.

The first editorial I wrote – 10 years ago, in the June 2007 50th anniversary of Fire Fighting in Canada – explained how Bill 111, the legislation guaranteeing workers’ compensation benefits to firefighters who died from eight types of cancers, had been fast-tracked through Queen’s Park.

The legislation has been amended several times to include volunteers, and more cancers; and most provinces now have similar laws.

The family of Hamilton, Ont., firefighter Bob Shaw spearheaded the drive for presumptive legislation. Shaw died of esophageal cancer in 2004, seven years after fighting a massive blaze at the Plastimet recycling plant in 1997; toxic smoke spewed from the scene.

Our cover story back in June 2007 was about hydrogen cyanide. Kitchener firefighters Carlin Riley and Steve Young wrote about the 27 firefighters in Providence, R.I., who were tested for hydrogen cyanide levels after three separate structural fires. Eight of the 27 had elevated levels of HCN and required treatment. One firefighter collapsed at the scene and was treated for HCN poisoning.

“The recognition of cyanide as a major component of fire smoke is one of the most significant discoveries over the past 25 years,” said Curtis Varone, deputy assistant chief with the Providence Fire Department.

In the last 12 months, PPE manufacturers have introduced hoods with high-tech fabric barriers that claim to prevent up to 99 per cent of particulates from passing through to the skin – a game changer.

I used to hear all the time that that tired old phrase about the fire service being all about tradition rather than progress. I beg to differ.


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