Victoria fire crews battle a blaze engulfing a home on McClure Street earlier this year. The long-term health risks of the job have become more apparent with the deaths of two former fire chiefs. Ragnar Haagen/BLACK PRESS

EDITORIAL: Improvements in firefighter safety can’t come quickly enough

The death of two former Victoria fire chiefs in 13 months a stark reminder of the job’s hazards

A cancer diagnosis is an awful thing for anyone or any family to go through. There’s really nothing good about it.

When otherwise healthy people receive that diagnosis, it’s almost a worse kick in the pants.

The family of retired Victoria fire chief Richard Couch experienced that earlier this year when the active, 30-year local firefighter was diagnosed in the aftermath of an accident that left him with serious injuries.

The passing of Chief Couch last month appears to be another damning piece of evidence that firefighting is a more dangerous occupation than the obvious risks of fighting fires would have it be. Firefighters groups locally and around the province have long been battling to get more recognition of the long-term hazards of the job by Worksafe BC, and more robust health insurance coverage for those suffering from job-related illnesses.

READ: Late Victoria fire chief remembered for his quiet dedication, leadership

They won a victory last year when the province added a clause to the Firefighters Occupational Disease Regulation under the Workers Compensation Act to add presumptions for breast cancer, prostate cancer and multiple myeloma as occupational diseases for firefighters.

When we are on scene covering fires in apartment buildings or other structures, we routinely see firefighters thoroughly hosing down the turnout gear of members who were on the front end of the fire attack, or those who spent long minutes in toxic smoke-filled hallways.

Thankfully, sealed breathing apparatus and tanks became standard years ago. But as anyone who has experienced a fire firsthand can attest, that acrid, smoky smell of burned toxic materials clings to everything – including one’s clothing. Firefighters deal with this all the time and continued, prolonged exposure to it has been found to cause long-term health effects.

We’re glad that the planned-for Victoria Fire Department public safety building on Johnson Street is expected to contain a specialized clean room where turnout gear can be sterilized of any toxins collected during active firefighting.

While progress in the area of firefighter safety has been slow and gradual, the hope is that preventative actions like this will help prolong the lives of the people who made a career out of protecting the lives and property of others.

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