Cancer is the leading cause of death among firefighters in Canada. It is a stark fact that is highlighted in January, during Fire Fighter Cancer Awareness Month. It is a fact that Airdrie's Fire Department tackles every day in its three fire halls and soon in its fourth fire hall at Highland Park.
While exposure to carcinogenic chemicals is most often associated with firefighters' duties in the field, the way a fire hall is constructed and furnished, down to something as mundane as carpeting, factors into mitigating cancer risks for firefighters.
This is best highlighted by the fact that the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) has designated each week in January to underscore a certain aspect of cancer awareness and prevention in the fire service. In its first week, it highlighted Best Practices to Reduce Cancer in Fire Stations.
During a recent tour of the Chinook Winds Fire Hall, the de facto Fire Department's headquarters, City Fire Chief Mike Pirie highlighted the nuanced technical and architectural specifications that go a long way in reducing exposure to harmful toxins inside a fire hall.
All of Airdrie's Fire Halls are split into a 'clean' and 'dirty' side. While the clean side encompasses office spaces and living areas, the dirty side includes the apparatus bays, cleaning rooms and equipment storage, which is where contamination is the highest. Between both sides of the building, there is an airlock and specific procedures to keep contaminants contained on the dirty side as best as possible.
Standing in the current apparatus bay, in an area where various firefighting turnout gear hangs in lockers, Chief Pirie said that one of the improved features of the to-be-constructed Highland Park station will be an exhaust system to the outside. This feature will mean that air will not be recirculated.
Other components of the new fire hall will include among other things:
- Ensuring spaces such as laundry and equipment storage are placed on the dirty side of the building.
- Improving Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) and reducing noise in the bays.
- Removing carpet and soft surfaces from the clean side to enable frequent cleaning.
He said that while best practices for cancer prevention within a fire station are common sense, there is also an ethical and more component.
As a career firefighter, he is aware of the risks of his profession, but from a leadership lens, he is also aware that the firefighters who serve Airdrie, voluntarily put themselves at risk. While they too are aware of the possibility of occupational cancer, there is a sense of ethical commitment to minimize that very risk.
He added that there is no scenario in which the risk of occupational cancer can be eliminated. The goal is to have the best possible procedures in place that help lower the risk. These procedures have evolved with the expanding base of research into occupational cancers.
Decades ago it was common that firefighters would attend structure fires and continue to wear their turnout gear for hours. That archetypical image of a firefighter covered from head-to-toe in soot and grime is an image belonging to the past.
Today, decontamination procedures begin well before firefighters come back to a fire station - it all starts at the scene of a fire, with firefighters taking off contaminated turnout gear. Turnout gear is washed in specialized washers, while regular uniforms are separately washed. Fire trucks are deep-cleaned after scene calls and firefighters 'shower within the hour' to make sure chemicals are not left on the skin for further absorption.
And while there is now a whole host of literature on the heightened risk of occupational cancer in firefighters, Chief Pirie said that what is known today, may change tomorrow. He noted that the best practices that are in place today may not bear results until the next generation of firefighters is staffing the fire stations.
"As Chief, it is my personal mission to do what we can to provide the healthiest environment possible knowing there are major exposures we can’t control during response."
The city's newest fire station is set to be operational in the fall of 2026.
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