Calgary firefighters mourned the loss of four of their colleagues in the past year at an annual ceremony in front of city hall Tuesday afternoon.
The memorial, meant to honour firefighters who have lost their lives in the line of duty or due to illness from firefighting, now displays the names of 58 fallen firefighters.
A ceremony is held on the second Tuesday of September for members of the fire department and the public to honour the lives lost.
Senior firefighter Harry Skakum, Capt. John Doherty, Capt. Roger Thompson and Capt. Donald Taylor all died of occupational cancers in the spring of 2020.
Skakum retired from firefighting in 1979 and Taylor retired in 1987, with Thompson and Doherty retiring in 1993 and 1994 respectively. All four served with the fire department for more than 20 years.
The president of the union that represents Calgary firefighters said job-related cancer needs to be addressed.
“Some of the fallen we honor here today we lost on the fire ground. They never got to say goodbye to their friends or their family. Some fell to the silent demons lurking in the shadows of this profession, feeling powerless to ask for help, and far too many lost their lives to a prolonged battle with job-related cancer,” Calgary Firefighters Association Local 205 president Codey McIntyre said.
“These issues I talk about can and need to be addressed working closely with the city.
“We will make this profession safer.”
Fire Chief Steve Dongworth said there hasn’t been a traumatic death of an on-duty firefighter in Calgary since 1992, but more firefighters are succumbing to illnesses related to their years of service.
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“That’s the challenge with the cancers; there’s a lag effect where you don’t actually see the impact of what you’re doing today for decades,” Dongworth said.
“We’re seeing the people that we’re recognizing today who were in the service 30, 40 years ago when there wasn’t the same level of knowledge. There wasn’t the same training, wasn’t the same equipment. There wasn’t health monitoring to maybe help them like there is for firefighters today.”
Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the city and fire department have improved occupational health and safety for the occupation, including using better equipment.
“It is quite clear that it is, in fact, true that long-term exposure to some of the hazardous materials that firefighters get exposed to can lead to cancers in the future, and obviously, that’s not something that any of us want,” Nenshi said Tuesday.
“We’ll continue to work not just with the local firefighters union, but with every municipality to figure out ways to keep firefighters safe on the job and after they retire.”
Dongworth said he is confident that practices implemented over the years will help identify illnesses in retired firefighters sooner in an effort to prevent deaths from firefighting-related cancers.
“Every firefighter has the option every year to get a full medical assessment, which is very focused on the occupational illnesses as well,” Dongworth said.
“Virtually every day, we think about extra things we can do to make our firefighters safer.”
‘Lower infection rate of COVID-19’
The rate of COVID-19 cases in Calgary firefighters is among the lowest of their peers, Dongworth said Tuesday.
“[These] past 18 months, we’ve contended with a new health risk as we navigate it and continue to navigate a global pandemic,” Dongworth said during the annual firefighter memorial ceremony.
“I am, first, incredibly grateful that we’ve had a lower infection rate of COVID-19 among Calgary firefighters than many other cities. But I’m also acutely aware that in other cities across North America, we’ve lost hundreds of our fellow firefighters to this terrible disease.”
The fire chief said since the beginning of the pandemic, around 100 members of the Calgary Fire Department have tested positive of roughly 1,500 firefighters — a 6.7 per cent rate.
Dongworth said he has heard of cities with much higher rates of COVID-19 cases.
“I sit on calls with my colleagues across North America… and many of them have experienced 15, 25 per cent or greater,” he told reporters.
Dongworth said cases within the fire department generally followed the first three waves of the pandemic.
“We’re certainly seeing a bit of a spike now with the fourth wave — there’s no question.”
Last week, the Calgary Firefighters Association shared that 85 per cent of its members were fully vaccinated.
Dongworth credited the character of his firefighters, saying they take necessary precautions to keep themselves safe to be able to serve the community.
“They get it. They get the fact that they don’t want to get sick, they don’t want to be taking an illness back to their family,” the fire chief said. “And they also get the fact that if they’re sick, they can’t be serving their community.
“That’s probably the biggest reason our people are very motivated to be out there protecting this community.”
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