VERNON - His tireless efforts saved many lives, but sadly, his wasn't one of them. After spending over 25 years pushing for better firefighter safety, Bob Brett died on July 6 at the age of 65. Medical records support that he died of a lung disease related to his career.
"He fought so hard for others, and in the end, he passed from the thing he'd been fighting all his life," Vernon firefighter and union vice-president, Doug Imrich says.
Brett was exposed to dangers in the beginning of his firefighting career that would eventually be much reduced, in large part by his own doing. In the old days, things like self contained breathing apparatuses weren't a requirement, and firefighters instead earned the nickname "smoke eaters" because of the fumes they inhaled.
"You were considered a weak firefighter if you used them (breathing apparatuses)," Imrich says. "Now, you wouldn't think of going to even a small car fire without one. Bob played a big part in that."
Another rule Brett fought for was the two in, two out rule. If a team of two firefighters enter a burning structure to perform an internal attack, there must be two firefighters stationed outside the building as well. For Brett, there were no ifs, ands, or buts about the rules.
"He was a fellow that demanded your total professionalism, and he gave it back," Imrich says.
Rob Cucheran, a younger firefighter who looked up to Brett recalls "there was no BS" when you were on duty with him and that he "led by example."
"He started before I was even born," Cucheran says. "There was a lot of (safety) stuff that was missing then."
Doug Kuhn, a retired Vernon firefighter, worked with Brett for over 25 years.
"He was a leader, no doubt about it. The guys would all follow him," Kuhn says. "Bob and I were pretty close, it was agonizing for me when he died."
Kuhn recalls "doing a lot of things we shouldn't have done" in the early days of firefighting.
"When we started, we didn't have what the guys have now," he says. "He'd seen so many guys whose lives had been shortened by illness, I think that's why he was so passionate about it."
For 26 years, Brett was president of the Vernon Professional Firefighters Association and for ten years the president of the B.C. Professional Firefighters Association. One of his biggest achievements was with cancer presumption. Before, firefighters had to prove cancer was related to their career in order get medical insurance. Now, it's assumed that at least 11 cancers are caused by the hazardous conditions firefighters face with smoke and burning chemicals.
Because of contact with these dangerous substances, Imrich says "the longevity of firefighters is much shorter compared to other careers." The mandatory age at which a firefighter must retire is 60 years old. A 2007 article published in the Ottawa Citizen talks about Canadian firefighters lobbying the government for compensation for the families of fallen loved ones. A firefighter quoted in the article commented, "We often die before our retirement."
Senior firefighters will tell you they've been to far too many funerals for friends and co-workers who passed before their time.
"Bob was too young," Kuhn says.
There have been huge gains in firefighter safety in the past 30 years, but the job still poses a higher risk than most other professions. And there are still many illnesses not covered by insurance.
"We continue to strive for coverage on other cancers," Imrich says. "Because of the dangers we face, we're passing too young. We won't stop until firefighters enjoy the same right to safety as people in other careers. You do a job you love, but you also want to live long enough to enjoy your life with family."
An obituary for Brett shows how much love he had for his family, and they for him. "Bob's devotion to his family was evident in the fact that he did not miss a single sporting event, awards banquet, anniversary, graduation, broken heart, or scraped elbow," the obituary says.
"There wasn't a better guy to be a role model," Kuhn says.
In memory of Brett, donations can be made to the B.C. Professional Firefighters Burn Fund.
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at email@example.com, call (250)309-5230 or tweet @charhelston