Alberta Newspaper Group
When Medicine Hat firefighter Cam Potts was recently diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, it shone the spotlight once again on a dangerous aspect of the job.
The potential dangers of fire are well known, and the visuals of the damage caused are widespread throughout media, but it’s what isn’t seen that causes the biggest risk to a firefighter’s health.
“Every time a firefighter is called out, if it’s a structure fire, motor vehicle fire — there’s always the risk of being exposed to carcinogens,” says Cypress County fire chief Kelly Meyer. “Nowadays, cars when they are burning release a lot of cancer-causing agents — house fires are the same.”
Existing dangers are unavoidable, but understanding those risks and being as prepared as possible is something departments are starting to put more focus on. By taking proactive measures and educating members, Meyer says the inflated cancer statistics for firefighters can go down.
“It’s part of the job but we have to do a better job of protecting ourselves and protecting our members,” he says. “Having our members checked out by doctors if they’ve had smoke inhalation or been exposed to something — it’s all about preventative maintenance.
“At this time, there is nothing (formal) in Cypress County, we’re just trying to develop a standard and make sure we get something in place.”
While nothing official has been put on paper for the county yet, Meyer says the focus on cancer prevention is there. For one thing, dropping the pride-filled mantras of the old days.
“I’ve been doing this for 14 years, and I’ve had guys throughout my whole career tell me, ‘Dirty gear is a badge of honour.’
“There’s no honour in dirty gear. That’s just a way to get carcinogens into your body … it’s not worth it.”
Regulations say firefighters must have gear certified clean every six months, regardless of it being exposed to hazardous elements. Meyer says his crew is encouraged to clean their gear after every call.
“Fire departments give members some of the best protective equipment possible to shield us from heat, fire flame — giving us the ability to do our jobs. But these carcinogens get buried hidden, and it doesn’t matter how well prepared we are.
“You’ve got to be very cautious.”
Meyer says he’s heard several stories from departments in other communities of firefighters who’ve been diligent in their cleanliness and are still diagnosed with cancers related to the job.
“It’s pretty sad that this happens, but it’s part of the job,” he said. “If I’m being truthful, when I first started firefighting, that’s the way it was: ‘It’s not going to happen to me.’
“But then you have friends who are getting diagnosed … it’s one of those things you’re never prepared for.”
Meyer is thankful to say most of the members he’s known personally to have contracted cancers have beat them, but he knows the statistics are high for those who lost the battle as well. Awareness is key and Meyer says there has been a lot more research in recent years, providing preventative measures that will hopefully lead to shrinking numbers being diagnosed.
“I would like to really focus on Cypress County and on getting a good program in place so we can at least have some preventative maintenance,” Meyers said, alluding to programs and formal policies he’s seen put in place in neighbouring departments.
Sometimes, he says, that can be as simple as changing the wording used in firefighter operations manuals. He says the chiefs and members from all the region’s fire departments are constantly in contact and sharing information.
“We’re all a team, and when something like this happens to someone in another department, it affects everybody. It makes everyone want to think a little bit different,” Meyers said. “That’s the thing with firefighting, you can see your threats, you can see the dangers, but with carcinogens, you can’t.”