Vancouver secures funding to provide firefighters with chemical-free gear

April 11, 2024

City council approves $2.8M for PFAS-free firefighting gear

Vancouver’s fire department has successfully secured over $2.8 million in funding from the city to acquire firefighting gear devoid of cancer-causing chemicals.

This financial support was confirmed on Tuesday when the city council unanimously passed a one-time budget request from Vancouver Fire Rescue Services (VFRS).

The fund will facilitate the purchase of gear that does not contain Per-and-Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), positioning Vancouver as the first city in North America to take such an initiative.

Fire Chief Karen Fry, in her report to the city council, emphasized the health risks associated with PFAS, chemicals commonly found in traditional firefighting gear and linked to cancer and other diseases.

“The adverse health risks posed by these chemicals were brought to our attention in August 2022 by the International Association of Fire Fighters,” Fry mentioned.

This development led to a reevaluation of gear specifications, culminating in the recent procurement of PFAS-free moisture barriers certified by the National Fire Protection Association for structural firefighting.

A step towards safer firefighting practices

The initiative to eliminate PFAS from firefighting gear comes in response to the limitations VFRS firefighters have faced in recent years.

“They’ve had to make a lot of modifications—limiting the training they’re doing while wearing the gear, limiting their exposure to only wear their gear when really necessary,” Fry explained to CTV News.

This unanimous council vote not only signifies a major stride towards better serving the community but also highlights the diligent efforts of the union working behind the scenes.

Lee Lax, vice-president of IAFF Local 18, underscored the importance of the new gear in protecting both active and retired firefighters.

He invoked the memory of Bruce Tebbutt, a retired VFRS Battalion Chief who died from occupational cancer, to illustrate the critical need for this change.

“Cancer remains the number one killer of firefighters,” Lax stated, reflecting on the 32 local firefighters lost to occupational cancer since 2017.

Advocating for broader legislative action

The acquisition of PFAS-free gear by VFRS has sparked a broader conversation on firefighter safety across British Columbia.

Adam Olsen, B.C. Green Party MLA, has been a vocal advocate for the cause, introducing the Firefighters Protection Act last month.

This proposed legislation seeks to ban cancer-causing substances in firefighter gear and foam, addressing the absence of regulation concerning the use of PFAS-containing foam by fire departments.

Olsen’s efforts underscore the urgency of establishing new standards and timelines for all fire services in B.C. to transition to PFAS-free gear, emphasizing the need to protect firefighters from “unseen dangers.”

Later this month, the IAFF plans to lobby the federal government for actions to mitigate the cancer risks firefighters face, including a ban on the manufacture, import, and use of PFAS.

FSJA Comment

The Vancouver Fire Rescue Services’ procurement of PFAS-free gear, backed by a substantial $2.8 million grant from the city council, exemplifies a proactive approach to mitigating occupational cancer risks and sets a precedent for fire departments across North America.

The legislative efforts amplify the call for nationwide regulatory changes, advocating for the well-being of first responders.

This collective initiative towards PFAS-free firefighting gear mirrors a growing awareness and commitment to ensuring the long-term health and safety of those who protect our communities.

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