Fredericton mourns firefighter who had occupational cancer
Robert Berryman, 61, began firefighting career in 1978
By Jeff Cottrill
(Canadian OH&S News) — Professional and volunteer firefighters from around New Brunswick and elsewhere came together in Fredericton on March 28, for the department funeral of a veteran firefighter who had died of throat cancer believed to have developed from his job.
Robert Berryman, who had served with the Fredericton Fire Department (FFD) for nearly 35 years before retiring in 2013, passed away from the disease on March 23. He was 61 years old, according to an FFD news release.
Berryman’s public funeral took place at Fredericton’s Nashwaaksis United Church, with Main Street shut down for a departmental ceremony that included a large pipe band made up of musicians from four regional department bands. Attendees came from as far as Halifax and other Maritime cities, according to Evan Jilks, president of International Association of Firefighters (IAF) Local 1053.
Jilks, who co-organized the ceremony, described it as “very well attended.”
Although Berryman contracted cancer shortly after his retirement from service, his passing is considered a Line of Duty Death, with the disease presumed to have been caused by his firefighting career. New Brunswick’s presumptive legislation for firefighting-related diseases, enacted in 2009, deems certain types of cancer to be job-related for firefighters, including retirees, thus qualifying them for workers’ compensation benefits.
Berryman is the FFD’s first Line of Duty Death under the legislation and the city’s first firefighting Line of Duty Death overall in about four decades, said FFD assistant deputy chief David McKinley.
“We’ve had five firefighters die in the line of duty here. Three were killed outright; two did have heart attacks on the scene and died as well,” explained McKinley.
Cancer can develop from firefighting in a number of ways, including inhalation of carcinogens from fire and smoke, as well as wearing contaminated clothing, from which carcinogens can seep through one’s skin, McKinley added. Today, firefighters need to wash their uniforms and personal protective equipment regularly in order to decontaminate them, but that has not always been the case.
“Back in the old days, firefighters used to take their gear into the bunkroom with them and the dorms, and that’s a no-no now,” said McKinley. “So we do our best now to make sure we’re protecting ourselves. We’re making sure we wear respiratory protection in any circumstances where we could be contaminated, and keeping our gear clean. It’s very important.”
Jilks noted that times had changed a lot over Berryman’s career, in terms of firefighter protection.
“He was in the days when we were still wearing long coats and tall boots,” said Jilks. “I don’t even know if we had air packs at the time, and if we did, we only had one or two.
“He started his career in 1978. So there have been a lot of advancements since then, in our personal protective equipment.”
McKinley said that nearby Saint John had also had a recent firefighter fatality from occupational disease. “He was still working, and anyway, he was off work on sick leave for quite a while,” he recalled. “He had workers’ comp benefits that maintained him. But he did die, though, before too long.”
While not every cancer case automatically qualifies a firefighter for workers’ comp — only nine forms of the disease are eligible, for example, and being a smoker could disqualify someone with lung cancer — McKinley said that the presumptive legislation had proved to be a good development.
“It helps members, firefighters, maintain some benefits after they leave or if they have to leave early, which isn’t uncommon,” he pointed out. “There’s a significantly higher incidence of these particular types of cancer in firefighters than there are against the general population.”
Berryman had been an executive officer with IAF Local 1053 for 10 years, according to information from the FFD.