Nova Scotia firefighter says cancer, mental health remain ‘big battle’ for crews

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia firefighters looking for more mental health, cancer screening support'
Nova Scotia firefighters looking for more mental health, cancer screening support
Nova Scotia firefighters say crews continue to face a battle when it comes to their own health. They say prevention is key to protect their mental health and reduce their risk of developing cancer. As Skye Bryden-Blom reports, fighters are looking for more support – Feb 28, 2023

A Nova Scotia firefighter says the big battle crews are currently facing, beyond blazes, revolves around cancer and mental health.

Firefighters and politicians sat down in Halifax on Tuesday to discuss what supports are needed during a standing committee on human resources.

Michael Sears said challenges persist around mental health. The Nova Scotia representative for the Atlantic Provinces Professional Firefighters Association opened up about his own experience with getting support.

“I was the first claim from Halifax for occupational stress, post-traumatic stress,” he told the committee.

Sears, who is also a member of the Halifax Professional Firefighters Association, explained it was a five-month journey to go through the process and to also consider ways of helping to remove roadblocks for other people.

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“It’s funny to say it was the scariest thing I’ve ever done,” he recalled. “Going into a burning building, no big deal, taking care of myself and going through to deal with the impact of what 20 years of firefighting did. There’s a lot to evolve there. A lot of room to go.”

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia adds more types of cancer to firefighter insurance'
Nova Scotia adds more types of cancer to firefighter insurance

The president of the Fire Service Association of Nova Scotia also spoke at the meeting. Greg Jones and Sears agree a proactive rather than a reactive approach is needed when it comes to managing mental health in their field.

Reactive services would include a visit to a psychologist or day- and in-patient treatment programs. Proactive would help connect staff with support right from day one.

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“It’s starting off members at their inception,” Sears said, “once they come into intake. It’s building a good strong foundation under them, explaining what the stressors of firefighting can and likely will do to the member and then educating them on what to do when it does happen.”

The biggest roadblock, he says, is finding the money to fund these programs. He added stigma around mental health persists with a culture shift needed when it comes to recognizing when a firefighter needs support.

Click to play video: 'Nova Scotia volunteer firefighter recognized for 2022 life-saving effort'
Nova Scotia volunteer firefighter recognized for 2022 life-saving effort

Sears and Jones were both in praise of the expanded Presumptive Cancer Coverage, saying Nova Scotia is at the top when it comes to the service.

A year ago, the province added 13 types of cancer to its workplace injury insurance for firefighters. That increased the presumptive coverage to 19 cancers covered under the Workers’ Compensation Act.

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But they agreed there is room to grow that coverage as the science around cancer and their profession continues to evolve.

Another issue is cancer prevention.

Jones says firefighters find it challenging to get ahead of a diagnosis due to difficulties in accessing care.

“One (request) that we have is that we have a pre-screening program for fire service members, so members have the ability to get that pre-scanning at any time,” Jones said. “Many of our members across our association do not have the ability, they don’t have a family doctor to quickly have it done.”

Jones reported the field could also benefit from recruiting more people and bringing back workers who have left since the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The labor shortage — the same as any other workplace in Nova Scotia — the fire service has the exact same problem,” he said. “I can tell you from information, talking with our members of various departments, it is hard to get members to come out and join and become a member of the fire departments.”

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Jones said it was difficult to put an estimate on the number of workers currently in the profession, but said there is a recruiting issue right across the province.

He also renewed his calls for a better-governing structure to oversee the fire service provincially.

“In my opinion what needs to change is we need to have a government department that is responsible for fire service,” Jones said. “Right now we do not have a department that is responsible exactly for fire service and ensuring that there are minimal standards that we all meet right across the board.”

Overall, Jones was encouraged by the response and looks forward to future collaboration.

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