A new Canadian study calls for the creation of a national firefighter wellness surveillance system to help address soaring cancer rates and other key firefighter health risks.

By Len Garis

A new Canadian study, Determinants of Injury and Death in Canadian Firefighters: A Case for a National Firefighter Wellness Surveillance System, is calling for the creation of a national firefighter wellness surveillance system to help address soaring cancer rates and other key firefighter health risks.

Based on 10 years of firefighter health and injury data, we found that cancer has overtaken cardiovascular disease as the top killer of Canadian firefighters, while traumatic injuries and mental health issues also take a significant toll.

Firefighting is a risky profession

We identified the top health concerns facing Canadian firefighters based on research from 2000 to 2017, and worker claims data for 2006 to 2015 from the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada and WorkSafeBC.

“Taking a fresh look at the data helps to ensure that the measures taken to improve health and prevent injuries among firefighters are relevant and effective,” noted Ramsden, the lead author. “Through this study we see that firefighter health risks evolve over time. This points to the need for a method of continually collecting and analyzing firefighter health data, so that the interventions can remain in sync.”

Firefighting is a risky profession. Career firefighters have the second highest injury rates among emergency responders. Risks include extreme temperatures, physical injury, falling objects, diseases, toxic substances, violence or other traumatic events.

Ten years of worker claims data shows:

  • Cancer represented more than 86 per cent of all fatality claims – an annual rate of 50 fatalities per 100,000 firefighters.
  • Traumatic injuries (such as muscle strains and sprains, extremity injuries and burns) accounted for 90 per cent of all time-loss claims – about one in 50 firefighters each year.
  • Mental health issues (such as anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression) were the third leading cause of time-loss claims – about one in 5,000 firefighters each year.
  • Cardiovascular disease accounted for five per cent of fatality claims. Formerly the leading cause of firefighter death, it is now the third – although still the leading cause of on-duty death.
  • Respiratory disease accounted for just under two per cent of all fatality claims.

Firefighters at extra risk

Based on 2013 Statistics Canada data, firefighters die of cancer at two to three times the rate of the general population (depending on age). Although firefighters tend to lead healthier lifestyles, they are exposed to concentrated carcinogens in the air, soot and tar at the fire ground. The effect is cumulative: cancer time-loss claims peaked at ages 55 to 59, and most cancer deaths occurred over age 65.

The research has implications for the 100,000-plus volunteer and career firefighters across Canada, as well as those abroad.

“We see this study as part of the ongoing effort to make firefighting a safer profession,” noted Mike Hurley, Vice-President of the International Association of Fire Fighters’ 6th District, representing BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon. “We welcome any effort that helps us to better understand the risks to firefighters, and to identify what can be done to reduce them.”

Reducing risks

The study calls for a dedicated firefighter health surveillance model to monitor trends and patterns, and provide the information necessary to support future research and develop timely and responsive interventions that will lead to healthier and longer lives for Canadian firefighters.

“We know that firefighters are at an increased risk for certain types of injury, disease and death, and those are the issues where we need to be directing our resources,” said Dr. Pike of the BCIRPU, adding that fire departments could have a marked impact on firefighter health by being more proactive about cancer, traumatic injury and mental health.

Conducted by the British Columbia Injury Research and Prevention Unit (BCIRPU) and the University of the Fraser Valley (UFV) in B.C., the study was released in February 2018 by Rachel Ramsden, Jennifer Smith and Kate Turcotte from the BCIRPU; Len Garis, City of Surrey Fire Chief and UFV Adjunct Professor; Dr. Kenneth Kunz, a medical oncologist; Dr. Paul Maxim, a researcher and Wilfrid Laurier University Professor; Larry Thomas, City of Surrey Deputy Fire Chief; and Dr. Ian Pike, BCIRPU Director and University of British Columbia Professor.

Further information

The work was funded by the Motorola Solutions Foundation grant program, which supports and advances public safety programs and science, technology, engineering and math education.

The study can be downloaded for free.

Visit Motorola Solutions Foundation for more information.

Len Garis is the Fire Chief for the City of Surrey, BC; an adjunct professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice and associate to the Centre for Social Research at the University of the Fraser Valley; a member of the affiliated research faculty at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York; and a faculty member of the Institute of Canadian Urban Research Studies at Simon Fraser University. Contact him at LWGaris@surrey.ca.