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Calgary firefighters honour fallen members in annual memorial

Last Updated Sep 14, 2021 at 4:26 pm MDT

Calgary firefighters salute during a memorial honouring fallen members, held outside City Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 14, 2021. (PHOTO: Tom Ross - 660 NEWS)

CALGARY — Only days after first responders around the world commemorated the 20th anniversary of the terror attacks on 9/11, Calgary firefighters and other local emergency crews gathered to memorialize fallen members of their ranks on Tuesday outside City Hall.

The solemn ceremony at the Police Officers and Firefighters Tribute Plaza also brought the mayor, councillors, and family members of firefighters who either died on duty or passed away from diseases acquired through their lifesaving work.

Four more names were added to the memorial after they all died from occupational cancers in 2020. Harry W. Skakum, John C. Doherty, Roger K. Thompson, and Donald G. Taylor will now forever be memorialized at the plaza.

“However, each one is more than a name on a wall. They were people who loved and were loved, with nicknames and birthdays, who honourably served their fellow citizens and dedicated their careers to helping others,” said Chief Steve Dongworth. “We will make sure it is written in stone, forever, that they loved their community so much that they were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for it.”

Dongworth added that it is increasingly important to mark deaths related to the hazards of being a firefighter, as the last person to die in the line of duty was back in 1992.

“Sadly we’re losing people now to more insidious, long-term conditions,” he said. “We’ve always known that many of our colleagues, as they retire, don’t live as long as others. A lot of research has been done over the past 20 or 30 years that’s really associated certain specific cancers with firefighting.”

With this risk becoming more widely known, Dongworth said they are continuing to take steps to improve safety such as by ensuring crews have the best gear available and making regular medical examinations available. In addition, they ensure training is kept up to date so firefighters are safe at scenes so they can avoid tragedies through incidents such as a floor collapsing.

A total of 58 firefighters have died within the Calgary Fire Department since its inception in 1885 as the Calgary Hook, Ladder and Bucket Corps. The first death on duty was in 1923, when 28-year-old Hugh McShane passed away following a traffic accident when he was taking a fire truck back to the station after a scene call.

Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the memorial takes on even more meaning with the COVID-19 pandemic factored in, and credited the fire department for keeping everyone safe during the troubled times.

“We’ve been privileged to see many heroes this year and it is with honour that we remember those who are no longer with us. These firefighters’ bravery and service will live on in the hearts of their families, colleagues and city,” he said.

Speaking of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dongworth said the department has fared very well with an extremely low infection rate which shows how seriously they take the virus.

“We’ve had around 100 people infected out of a workforce of about 1,500, so that’s less than ten per cent,” he said. “We have great people who will take those precautions. They get it, they get the fact that they don’t want to get sick, they don’t want to be taking an illness back to their family and they also get the fact if they’re sick they can’t be serving their community. That’s probably the biggest reason, our people are very motivated to be out there protecting this community and you can’t do that if you’re sick.”

After speeches were made, the names of fallen firefighters were read and accompanied by a ringing of the firefighters’ bell. A bagpiper played Amazing Grace before wreaths were laid at the foot of the memorial, and then the honour guard marched away. Finally, members of the audience rose to place roses next to plaques commemorating their loved ones.