All fired up: Firefighter takes on legal quest for fellow servicemen

When firefighters rush into a burning building, they go in with one priority: to save lives. Facing danger in the line of duty just comes with the territory.

The selfless nature of these unsung heroes is what makes people like Alex Forrest — a lieutenant with the Winnipeg Fire Department — want to fight for the cause of firefighters.

Forrest has been fighting the legal battles for thousands of firefighters across Canada since he was called to the bar in 1996. Even before then, the 25-year veteran firefighter has been an advocate through his involvement with the United Firefighters of Winnipeg (UFW). Being a lawyer just gives Forrest the ammunition to tackle the issues on behalf of these servicemen.

As both a practicing lawyer and firefighter, Forrest gets to do the two things he enjoys most.

“I have always enjoyed university, and law was a perfect combination with firefighting,” says Forrest. “One occupation is extremely physical, and law is extremely intellectual. It’s a good balance for me.”

Although he was going to full time law school at the University of Manitoba, Forrest continued to work in the fire department. He never left the service, even after he was called to the bar and started his private practice in the late 1990s.

“I started getting more involved with firefighter issues, and I used my law degree to help my firefighting union career,” recalls Forrest. In 1997, Forrest was elected president of the UFW, a year after he was called to the bar.

His private law practice on one hand and his firefighting career on the other, Forrest had his hands full for a while, until he realized one carried more weight to him than the other. He gave up his private practice and dedicated his legal skills to the firefighters’ union.

“Being a union leader today means you have to be very involved in the legal issues, so I can honestly say I have never given up law, I just stopped practicing in a private firm,” says Forrest. 

Cancer coverage
One such legal issue was getting workers’ compensation coverage — known as presumptive legislation — for cancers linked to firefighting.

Presumptive legislation is a provision under workers’ compensation law that decrees certain types of cancer as occupational disease. Firefighters who develop any of the cancers listed in the legislation would be covered under workers’ compensation — even if the disease occurs at a later stage in the firefighter’s life.

“Too many of our firefighters are dying of occupational cancer and they were not properly being compensated. I wanted to change that,” says Forrest, who is also the Canadian trustee for the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF).

In the late 1990s, the firefighters’ union noticed a significant number of its members were dying of cancer believed to be linked to the occupation, Forrest recalls.

“We had known there were some places in the United States that had recognized occupational cancer as part of professional firefighting, but no place in Canada had any legislation.” Forrest knew something needed to be done. 

Backed by research and armed with his law degree and field experience as a firefighter, Forrest led the union in taking the cause to the legislature, working to get presumptive legislation passed in Manitoba.

In 2002, he landed a major win for firefighters when, for the first time in Canada, certain types of cancer were declared compensable under Manitoba’s workers’ compensation system.

“(Occupational cancer is covered) in the same way that if a firefighter was going into a building and the floor collapsed. If they were hurt they would be looked after, and if they were subsequently killed because of that action, their families would receive financial compensation,” Forrest explains.

Getting presumptive legislation passed in Manitoba was only the first step for Forrest and his group of firefighter advocates; for while they may have secured a victory for their brothers in the province, hundreds were facing the same ordeal in other parts of the country.

In his national role as Canadian trustee for the IAFF, Forrest goes on a mission to get the rest of Canada onboard with presumptive legislation. The political element became one of the biggest challenges, he says.

“It’s always hard to get any province to be the first (in passing legislation) because basically, politics is a very conservative element,” says Forrest. “They don’t want to be the first because they aren’t sure what the repercussions were.”

Despite the political challenges, fate and science were on the firefighters’ side as research around firefighting-related cancers started to increase, fueling the argument for presumptive legislation. The types of cancer covered under the legislation also increased from 5 to 15. It also now covers heart attack if it occurs within 24 hours after an emergency response.

To date, eight provinces and two territories have adopted the legislation — British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Northwest Territories and the Yukon — covering 80 per cent of firefighters in Canada. Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland are getting close to passing presumptive legislation, according to Forrest. 

Since Canada started embracing presumptive legislation, other countries have started to take up the issue as well, and Forrest has been a significant part of the process — helping Australia become the third country in the world to pass presumptive legislation (U.S. and Canada are the first two). Sweden and Finland and other parts of Europe have also started the process for presumptive legislation. 

“This whole issue of presumptive legislation is still in its infancy,” says Forrest. “There are thousands of firefighters around the world that are dying of occupational cancer and are not fortunate to live in Canada and the United States or Australia.”

“Firefighters are fighting the same fires, dealing with the same cancer-causing agents and are dying, and they are not being recognized by their governments.”

Fighting politics
Forrest has been serving his country long before he became a firefighter. He enlisted with the Canadian Forces when he was 17. Three years later, he was honourably discharged and went back to school at the University of Winnipeg where he gained his bachelor of arts. He worked briefly at the RCMP, before he finally found his true calling at the Winnipeg Fire Department.

The discipline that came with serving in the military and the RCMP perhaps helped hone Forrest’s skills in dealing with the politics involved in pursuing the firefighters’ agenda.

“The one thing I have learned is that firefighters have to be politically involved,” says Forrest. “They have to be active in the community politically. We can’t afford to leave the politics alone because politics doesn’t leave firefighters alone.”

“Every decision — in regards to safety, the number of firefighters on the street, our personal protective equipment —comes down to political decisions.”

His work with presumptive legislation is not over — and takes up a good chunk of his time — but Forrest’s other responsibilities with the UFW and the IAFF keep him occupied.

Many people commend Forrest for his accomplishments for firefighters, but he is always mindful and thankful of all the people who helped him along the way — especially those who have been diagnosed with cancer and helped him give voice and face to the cause.