Fire Fighting in Canada

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Stop Bad: September 2016

Much has been written about cancer and its relationship to the fire service. The bottom line is that if you are a firefighter you have a higher chance of getting cancer than a non-firefighter. Rather than argue about how many times more likely we are to get cancer, I would rather discuss some ways chief officers and firefighters can help reduce these odds.

August 29, 2016 
By Gord Schreiner

We at Comox Fire Rescue encourage all our firefighters to eat a healthy diet and also offer them several fitness options. Members attend scheduled weekly core training sessions at our station, and have access to free family fitness passes to our community-owned fitness centre. In addition our own fire-station fitness centre is open 24/7, 365 days a year. The department also has mountain bikes and stand-up paddle boards available for firefighters to borrow.

We encourage our firefighters to regularly use one of our three detox saunas in the station; sweating out toxins really works! Firefighters are encouraged to shower immediately after any fires. That smoke smell is telling you something: don’t go back to work or bed smelling like smoke. We insist that our firefighters wear their SCBAs all the time. If you are thinking about whether you need SCBA or not just wear it. We recommend that our firefighters have yearly physicals and discuss cancers with their doctors. Early recognition of cancer is key to successful treatment.

In a perfect world every firefighter would have two sets of PPE so that one set can be cleaned while the second set is in service, however, this can be very difficult for smaller fire departments due to the high cost of PPE and frequent staff turnover. Comox Fire Rescue is a small department, and to help address budget concerns, we have issued every firefighter a second hood (balaclava) at a cost of about $40 each. With two hoods, a firefighter can clean one after every fire and use the second hood in service. Firefighter hoods should be worn at every fire as your head has many points at which toxic chemicals can enter your body. To further address the issue of dirty PPE, our department has several loaner sets so that firefighters can borrow the spare sets while their own are being cleaned.

Firefighters also rinse off their dirty PPE before they get back on the rig to return to the station. In some cases, members will bag the dirty PPE for the return trip. All firefighters carry spare soft clothing in the trucks so that they have something clean to wear after a call. We spend a lot of time washing PPE and uniforms at our station. All our firefighters are issued their own SCBA masks and these, too, get washed after each fire. We have SCBA loaners as well in case a member’s SCBA mask cannot be put back into service right away. Firefighters must wash their helmets too. The helmet liners can be removed and washed and the hard surfaces can be cleaned. We insist that no PPE comes into the office or living areas of the fire station; it must be kept on the apparatus floor.


Our department has installed an exhaust-removal system to the apparatus floor. The system uses roof-mounted scrubber units (no hoses) that activate by sensors. The units scrub exhaust from not just our vehicles but also from vehicles passing by or parking near our station when the bay doors are open. These units also scrub exhaust from the many small motors (saw, fans, generators) that run during our weekly vehicle checks.

Comox Fire Rescue has added signage all over the station and site that remind firefighters about the things they can do to help reduce the chances of getting cancer – clean their PPE, shower, avoid exhaust and get yearly physicals. To help get the message out, Comox Fire contracted Dr. Kenneth Kunz to deliver two cancer awareness and prevention sessions to our firefighters and other local fire service members. Kunz has a Ph.D. in chemotherapy and many years of experience as an oncologist.

Cancer prevention is now a vital component of fire services. We must understand that these preventative steps are very important and may save a life (maybe even your own). Do your part at your station to help prevent cancer.

Please feel free to contact me for more information.

Gord Schreiner joined the fire service in 1975 and is a full-time fire chief in Comox, B.C., where he also manages the Comox Fire Training Centre. He is a structural protection specialist with the Office of the Fire Commissioner and worked at the 2010 Winter Olympics as a venue commander. Contact him at and follow him on Twitter at @comoxfire

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