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RCMP officers who worked Fort McMurray wildfire lacked proper safety masks

RCMP officers who risked their lives during the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire did not have proper masks to protect them as smoke from forest fires and hundreds of burning buildings choked the city.

'I will guarantee you, there have been members' lives that will be shortened,' association spokesperson says

An RCMP officer, left, wears a 3M half-face mask, which experts say should have been used during the worst of the Fort McMurray wildfire. Instead, members had N95 masks, similar to the one on the right. (Canadian Press/ Creative commons)

RCMP officers who risked their lives during the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire did not have proper masks to protect them as smoke from forest fires and hundreds of burning buildings choked the city.

The RCMP acknowledged the problem in a wildfire review, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act.

The Mounted Police Professional Association of Canada was the first to complain about the health and safety risk, in a press release issued almost two years ago during the wildfire evacuation and emergency response.

RCMP officers complained to the association they didn't have fitted masks while directing traffic through smoke so thick it turned day into night, or when they went door to door ushering residents out of burning neighbourhoods.

RCMP officers who risked their lives during the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire did not have proper masks to protect them as smoke from forest fires and hundreds of burning buildings choked the city. The RCMP acknowledged the problem in a wildfire review, obtained by CBC News under the Access to Information Act. 1:46

Instead, Wood Buffalo RCMP detachment officers had "paper filter" masks, association spokesperson Terry McKee said. Footage CBC News shot during the evacuation on May 3, 2016, showed some RCMP and municipal peace officers weren't wearing masks.

McKee said members complained they didn't have masks, or that their masks became clogged. He said he knows several officers who now have respiratory side effects and coughing spells.

"It's a terrible thing for members to have to go through that with a paper-filter mask," McKee said "I will guarantee you, there have been members' lives that will be shortened because of what they inhaled."

'We acknowledge there were issues'

The May 2016 wildfire is considered one of Canada's largest evacuations and costliest insured disasters.

In the initial hours, 136 members from the Wood Buffalo RCMP were involved in the response. 

During the wildfire, the air quality index consistently registered well above the "high-risk" level.

McKee slammed the RCMP in an interview with CBC News, saying the police force should have learned from the experiences of officers during the 2003 Kelowna and 2011 Slave Lake wildfires.

McKee said members should have been provided with masks that fully covered their faces, and with fire-retardant clothing that protected them from the showers of embers.

An RCMP officer on May 3rd, 2016, in Fort McMurray wears the N95 respirator, which did not provide the highest level of protection from toxic wildfire smoke. (CBC)
RCMP officers wore masks to combat smoke as they worked at a checkpoint on the highway to Fort McMurray. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

The review, titled K Division Fort McMurray Fire Response 2016 Best Practices and Lessons Learned, said N95 respirators should have been replaced by 3M half-face respirators that "provide a higher level of protection."

"There were initial shortages of PPE (personal protective equipment) and other necessary supplies to maintain the health and well-being of members involved in the response," the review said.

RCMP spokesperson Cpl Teri-Ann Deobald said it took two days to provide proper protective equipment to members because Fort McMurray was so remote.

"We acknowledge there were issues," Deobald said. "We have taken the necessary steps to outfit members with a fitted respiratory system."

Officers being medically monitored

The report recommends 3M half-face respirators and replacement filters should be included with standard personal protective equipment available to officers.

Deobald said all detachment members have now been outfitted with proper respiratory equipment, and all those who responded to the fire are undergoing pulmonary function testing and are being medically monitored.

Deobald said she doesn't have any results because medical files are private.

Michael Brauer, professor in the School of Public Health at the University of British Columbia, said the N95 mask and the 3M half-masks work equally well when filtering out particles. He said he usually recommends either mask to workers who need to be outside during a wildfire.

But Brauer said the 3M half-masks offer a tighter seal when fitted correctly and can also filter out gasses as long as the proper cartridge filters are included.

"The big difference with the half-face respirator, it has the neoprene or rubberized seal," Brauer said. "It generally will fit much better." 

When working in environments where homes are burning, Brauer cautioned that neither of those masks would be appropriate, and RCMP officers would need to carry purified air, similar to what firefighters would cary.

The RCMP report is the latest review to highlight problems that plagued the Fort McMurray response.

Reviews conducted by the province and the municipality of Wood Buffalo identified miscommunication and disorganization during the emergency response. 

Follow David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on Facebook and Twitter, or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca

About the Author

David Thurton

David Thurton is CBC's mobile journalist in Fort McMurray. He's worked for CBC in the Maritimes & in Canada's Arctic. Email: david.thurton@cbc.ca