Fire fighters battled a fire at a multi-family home on the 800 block of Fulton Street on June 6, 2017. (Matthew Allen / The Northern View)

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

The silent threat that is killing firefighters and how the profession is fighting back

The most dangerous part of being a firefighter is not the fire itself.

A former firefighter with the Prince Rupert Fire Department (PRFD), Francis Wolfe received his cancer diagnosis after discovering blood in his urine. He immediately called his doctor who referred him to a urologist, who found two tumours in his bladder.

“When my doctor first told me, it was like I was hearing something way off in the distance,” Wolfe said. “The hardest thing for me to do was call my wife.”

Since the cancer was discovered early, it was treatable. However, it was a conversation with his physician that shone a spotlight on the unknown risks of his job as a firefighter.

“He told me that I have air packs on so I don’t breath in fumes, but when you’re exposed to high heat and then chemicals, toxins get into your bloodstream,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe’s doctor asked him how often he goes to the bathroom and Wolfe said sometimes he wouldn’t go for hours while fighting a fire.

“He said, ‘That’s the problem because that stuff ends up in your bladder’,” Wolfe said. “And it’s just a toxic soup.”

After more than 30 years of entering burning buildings, Wolfe never thought cancer would be what ultimately threatened his life.

A Prince Rupert firefighter gathers himself after exiting a burning building. (Photo submitted by the Prince Rupert Fire Museum)

A hidden danger

The commonly considered risks of being a firefighter are easy to comprehend. TV shows, movies and books are replete with images of brave heroes running into fire-filled buildings, putting their lives on the line to rescue others.

What is less discussed is the fact that firefighters are exposed to incredibly toxic substances and chemicals at high heat in those situations. A 2018 report by researchers at the University of Fraser Valley cited several carcinogens, such as benzene, formaldehyde, arsenic and cadmium as being present in buildings firefighters have to enter.

The fires in those situations can roar to extremely high temperatures. When that happens, those chemicals are absorbed into firefighters’ skin and hair through their suits, and unlike the flames themselves, firefighters carry those carcinogens out of the burning buildings with them.

“Fire is the sensationalism risk, it’s the flames and the big explosions and you know that’s exciting, but cancer is the one that sneaks up on you,” said Jeff Beckwith, deputy fire chief with the PRFD. “…all of a sudden, it’s there and it’s not as sensational as fire, but it’s just as dangerous or more dangerous.”

Prolonged exposure to those toxins has resulted in firefighters having higher cancer rates compared to the general population.

The average Canadian male has a 45 per cent chance of developing cancer at some point in their life, according to the Canadian Cancer Society. This risk increases to 54 per cent if that individual is in the fire service.

WorkSafeBC accepted 103 work-related death claims between 1998 and 2018 for people working in the occupations of fire captain, firefighter and volunteer firefighter.

Of those claims, only nine were not related to disease. Of those nine death claims, only two were the direct result of a firefighter entering a building to fight a fire and dying at the scene.

On the other hand, there were 64 death claims between 1998 and 2018 that were attributed to cancer as a result of prolonged exposure to harmful substances. That means that over the last 30 years, if you are a firefighter, you are 30 times more likely to be have been killed by the effects being in a fire, than the fire itself.

Those statistics are sobering for firefighters who until recently, only had to grapple with a certain threshold of risk.

“Now, you’ve got this secret stalker that you can’t define,” said Beckwith. “I can define fire, I can see it and I know how it burns and how it works and the risks and the threats that it has, but the exposure, that’s not as tangible.

“You can feel it, you can dissipate it, but we can only do our best guess to try and minimize the risk.”

Derek Kormendy, who has been a firefighter in Prince Rupert for the past seven years, was more blunt in his assessment.

“Nobody wants to rot in a hospital bed,” he said.

Firefighters used to sleep with their uniforms close to their beds for quick access in the event of an emergency call. Departments have since shifted to storing uniforms in an specially air-vented room separate to the rest of the building’s living quarters. (Matthew Allen / The Northern View)

Firefighter culture shifts

Education and training have changed in fire departments across the country to reflect the dangers of the job over the past 10 years.

Decontaminating the protective suits used to enter a burning building has become a high priority with firefighters taking extra care not to contaminate either themselves or their living spaces.

“When people see us at a fire, they’ll see guys in turnout gear and then right afterwards, they’re all stripping down into coveralls,” Beckwith said. “So everything in the building, they take off, bag it all up and that goes off for cleaning, and then they’re not taking contaminated gear into the truck and back to the station.”

This is a major shift from the attitudes of previous generations. Beckwith said that when he was still young, a dirty helmet and uniform was considered to be a badge of honour, a sign that an individual was always on the front lines.

Firefighters would exit a building, get back into their truck in their gear and go back to the station to begin cleanup. Sometimes they would wash their gear, sometimes they wouldn’t.

“All of a sudden you’re taking dirty gear, putting it upstairs and now you’re walking around with that even in the seat,” he said. “You get out and the next guy might be wearing his uniform and he wasn’t at the fire, but he’s absorbing all the stuff that’s dripped into the seat.”

When thinking back on his days with the fire department in the 70s and 80s, Wolfe said gear and boots would be stored beside his bed for quick access in case he was dispatched while sleeping.

“You’d have them right next to you,” he said. “There’s still lots of toxic chemicals in those things.”

Once after exiting a burning building, Wolfe’s captain told him to hold his breath and then exhale.

“It was just like smoke coming out if you took a puff out of a cigarette,” he said. “It was still in my lungs.”

As information and statistics have improved, so to have the procedures to help mitigate the risk of exposure. Beckwith said the department takes extra care to identify areas of skin that may be exposed and sanitize those areas immediately upon exiting a building. Uniforms are now separated in an air-vented room in the station while the gear is cleaned and sanitized.

Francis Wolfe looks at an old firefighter’s uniform in the Prince Rupert Fire Museum. Decades ago, firefighter’s uniforms were not as sophisticated as they are today, leaving them exposed to smoke and dangerous toxins when they entered burning buildings. (Matthew Allen / The Northern View)

Laws, education and the future

Beckwith said a new generation of firefighters are also being taught to think differently about their safety than previous ones. Academies that train firefighters are placing more of an emphasis on the risks of toxic environments and the importance of proper decontamination.

He said that knowledge has helped to make changes to procedure the norm.

“I think each generation of firefighters is smarter than the previous one,” he said. “Because you have the benefit of the previous generation teaching you everything and then the new generation has access to technology and innovation, so the guys that are coming in are right on this.”

Laws have also shifted to recognize the risks of the profession. In 2005, provincial legislation in B.C. was passed recognizing eight types of cancers as being causally related to the profession of fire fighting.

If a firefighter develops one of these cancers, has worked for the minimum cumulative period and has been regularly exposed to the hazards of a fire scene other than a forest fire, the diagnosed cancer is presumed to have been caused by firefighting and their compensation claim would be automatically covered by WorkSafeBC.

Wolfe’s bladder cancer is on that list, and as a result, he will remain covered until he dies. While his initial surgery was successful, Wolfe’s cancer has returned five times and he has required continued treatment, including a recent course of chemotherapy.

It’s still too soon to know if or how these changes will impact cancer rates moving forward, and how these realities will affect people’s decisions to join the profession. For his part, Wolfe says the career was worth it, even if he would approach things differently now than he did back then.

“It’s a job that’s necessary, you’re here to serve the community and do what you can to hopefully save a life or two and just be there when you’re needed,” he said. “But if I was still working there, I’d always be thinking, ‘Let’s not take my air mask off too soon.’”

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