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Firefighters welcome cancer bill

It didn’t take much to convince St. Albert firefighter Scott Wilde to participate in an occupational medical assessment.

It didn’t take much to convince St. Albert firefighter Scott Wilde to participate in an occupational medical assessment.

The head of the local firefighters’ union said the test struck him as a no brainer because he knew there were several health risks associated with fighting fires.

“We have high risks and you may not get the same watch with a regular doctor,” said Wilde, who joined the St. Albert Fire Department nine years ago. “I was happy to have the opportunity to make sure that what I felt was what I am.”

Leduc-Beaumont-Devon Progressive Conservative MLA George Rogers introduced a private member’s bill this week that would increase by two the total number of firefighting-related cancers recognized by the Alberta Workers’ Compensation Board. Currently there are eight.

Rogers said the original bill recognizing cancers and other health issues associated with firefighting was passed in 2003. He feels it’s now time to add testicular and esophageal cancers to the list.

“Firefighters are exposed to very toxic substances over time, over and over again,” he said in a phone interview. “With this bill, we will be consistent with other parts of Canada.”

Locally, city council funded a wellness/ training program in the 2009 budget to help firefighters look after their health. Part of the program involves firefighters going for an in-depth physical with annual tests to ensure potential health issues are caught long before they pose serious risk.

Inhaling smoke

Supporting the wellness motion was an easy one for Coun. Carol Watamaniuk. She once participated in a training challenge put on by the fire department and said it gave her insight into a firefighter’s health issues.

“I could feel [the smoke] in my lungs after a few minutes inside. Imagine if you had that on a cumulative basis,” said Watamaniuk. “Despite the high technology gear they put on, there’s still a hazard.”

Fire Chief Ray Richards said firefighters could sign up on a voluntary basis for the program; within the first year, 80 per cent signed up. By making it voluntary, Richards said firefighters are more likely to sign up for the program than if it was forced upon them. He was not aware of any serious diagnoses as a result of the screening.

“We don’t have concrete statistics, but we know of a few minor things that were caught,” said Richards. “There were some issues that, if they were not caught, could have been fatal down the road.”

For Wilde, the best part of the proposed bill is the potential ease this will give families whose members suffer from either of the two new cancers. It’s the family that often makes sacrifices for the firefighter, he said.

Wilde said he appreciated the city’s stance on the issue, saying they were very proactive in their approach to health care for the fire department.

“Rarely do these benefits help us, but it helps our families.”