More than 50 Calgary firefighters have died in the past couple of decades from occupational cancer.
Cancer caused by firefighting remains the leading cause of line-of-duty deaths for these men and women across the nation as well.
It’s with this sobering fact in mind that the Calgary Firefighter Stairclimb Challenge returned on June 5, after having been postponed since 2019 because of the pandemic.
“Firefighting has been long been recognized as an occupation where we have higher incidence of many types of cancer than the general population,” said Calgary Fire Department Chief Steve Dongworth.
The stairclimb took on a different form this year, as it became a hill climb race to the top and back along Canada Olympic Road at Winsport. Traditionally the event in pre-pandemic years has been held at The Bow tower.
Chief Dongworth challenged Calgary Police Service Chief Mark Neufeld to the climb on Sunday morning. They were joined in the challenge by Innisfail Mayor Jean Barclay, Innisfail Councillor Dale Dunham, and town directors and CAO Todd Becker, Erica Vickers, and Steven Kennedy.
As of Sunday morning, the challenge has raised $153,336 for Wellspring Calgary. The charity provides cancer patients and their families access to resources, programs, and support at no charge.
More than 150 firefighters from across Alberta, B.C., and Saskatchewan took part in the climb.
“One of the humbling parts of being able to participate alongside all of you brave people that put your life on the line each and every day for us citizens of Calgary… you have each other’s backs, you’re there for each other,” said Natalie Noble, CEO for Wellspring Calgary.
“For people going through cancer, having somebody have their back, having somebody that supports them while they’re facing a life threatening disease means so much,” she said.
Chiefs’ challenge personal for Dongworth and Neufeld
Chief Neufeld said that it was important for his participation in the climb, both representing the Calgary Police Service, and personally.
“We have such a wonderful relationship with our friends from Calgary fire, and we know that cancers are an occupational hazard for folks doing that important job, and so we want to be there for that,” he said.
“Personally, my mother passed away when I was just months old from lung cancer, and you know, that impacts your whole life.”
Chief Dongworth echoed Chief Neufeld’s sentiments about facing personal loss from cancer.
“I’ve got friends, family, particularly both my parents passed away from cancer, we’ve had over 50 firefighters who succumbed to occupational cancer—most of them retired—but I knew many of them, many of them were friends,” he said.
“Cancer, I think, for everyone is intertwined into our lives as a as kind of a terrible disease that takes people way too young.”
Occupational cancer hazards start in as little as five years
Among firefighters, some cancers can be classified as being occupational after as little as five years of service. For these cancers, it is automatically presumed to have been caused by the occupational dangers of firefighting.
Leukaemia is presumed after five years of service, and primary site brain, breast, cervical, ovarian, and testicular cancer after 10. Bladder, prostate, ureter, lung, and skin cancer is presumed after 15 years.
Chief Dongworth said that the Calgary Fire department provides the city’s firefighters with the best equipment, encourages and provides for ways to decontaminate after fires. Yet, he said, the highest cancer causing dangers are often when the fires stop burning.
“Even after a fire is out, it’s actually the most dangerous stage of a fire because those toxins get to their most concentrated. We have to be very careful that we keep our breathing protection on, and our clothing on, and to make sure that we wash our clothing and wash our breathing protection to make sure we’re safe,” he said.
For more information on the Calgary Firefighter Stairclimb Challenge, see their website at calgarystairclimb.com.
And for more information on Wellspring Calgary and their services for cancer patients, families, and caregivers, see wellspringcalgary.ca.