Inaugurated on the 2nd of December 1998, following a tragic event in Australia, Firefighters’ Day is now recognized internationally on the 4th of May. The decision was made to launch such a campaign in recognition of the importance, and risks, of the profession. This year, UCTE has decided to celebrate the day by profiling one of our members, Leah Kosolofski, Fire Captain at the Winnipeg Airport.
It all started in 1993 when Leah became a firefighter for the rural fire department. It was in this environment that she gained the experience, knowledge and training to become a professional firefighter.
“The very first emergency I responded to was in 1993. I immediately knew that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. This was my calling,” she declared.
At the time she started in her career, the industry was very male dominated. However, over the years, several awareness campaigns have brought women into the field. The viewpoint has not always been what it is today.
“This job can be mentally and physically demanding. You have to be constantly on your toes and taking care of your mental and physical health,” she says.
For 18 years, Sister Leah has been a full-time member of the ARFF firefighting team at the Winnipeg Airport. She is also active in her union. For the past few months, we have been working together on the Firefighters’ Cancer Awareness Campaign in Canada, with PSAC and UCTE. As well, Sister Leah is a member of the bargaining team for her Local.
In her profession, Leah is a fire captain at the YWG Airport Emergency Response Department. She supervises her team of 3 firefighters.
“I make sure my team has all the necessary training and that people feel safe with us on site,” she says.
Her typical workday includes responding to all types of emergencies on airport property, whether a person with chest pains on an inbound flight, or a plane with mechanical problems declaring an emergency. She and her colleagues conduct training on fire extinguishers, first aid, and other issues related to maintaining airport safety. A large number of fire inspections are conducted on a regular basis throughout the month. Sister Leah participates in all varieties of training to comply with Transport Canada regulations.
Leah was diagnosed with bladder cancer at the age of 46, so she is very sensitive on this subject, and has extensive related knowledge.
“I am a cancer survivor. I had no family history of bladder cancer. I’ve always been active and healthy. My doctor told me that this is a type of cancer he sees in 60–70-year-olds.”
Deeply distressed, she began to research, and realized that her exposure to toxic chemicals over 29 years as a firefighter had had a detrimental effect on her health. Determined to fight back, she was the first female firefighter in Manitoba to go through the WCB (Workers Compensation Board) Presumptive Cancer Act process.
“I was fortunate in that my fire departments over the years had excellent documentation. That is what made the difference in getting my claim approved.”
After a two-year battle, Leah is now in remission. While the experience has left its mark on her life, she is determined to continue fighting to ensure that no other firefighter has the same experience. “It will always be in the back of my mind,” she says with emotion.
In the United States, cancer cases among firefighters are exploding, which is very worrying. In Canada, we are just starting to see the firefighter cases on the rise. She has made a life-long commitment to raising awareness of the risks of cancer for her profession. She says that prevention, education and early screenings makes a huge difference in the survivability rate of firefighters.
“You must take your health seriously. Educate your doctor about firefighter-related cancers. Get screened regularly. You have only one life to live. Make it last,” says Leah.
From the very beginning of her career, Leah Kosolofski, as firefighter and social activist, has had to fight. Her perspective allows us to advance awareness campaigns in a profession with so many health and safety risks for firefighters around the world. It is an honour to work with Sister Kosolofski educating Canadians about the risks of this profession.