THE END

A fireman, he successfully fought to have different cancers recognized as occupational hazards

KEN MACQUEEN September 24 2007
THE END

A fireman, he successfully fought to have different cancers recognized as occupational hazards

KEN MACQUEEN September 24 2007

A fireman, he successfully fought to have different cancers recognized as occupational hazards

THE END

ROBERT HALL 1955-2007

Robert Hall, the son of Douglas and Hazel, was born in Vancouver on Sept. 25, 1955, and raised in neighbouring Burnaby along with his sister Maureen and brother Skip. He was a strapping, powerfully built lad with an arresting smile and an electric presence that served him well on stage as a guitarist in a number of rock and blues bands in his teens and early 20s. Music would always be a part of his life. For a few years in the 1970s, he lived in the northern B.C. town of Smithers, playing in bands and helping maintain a fleet of water bombers—the first line of defence for the region’s forest industry. It was Robert’s introduction to his future career, though friends credit a boyhood neighbour and mentor, a firefighter, with inspiring his decision to join the Vancouver Fire Department.

From the beginning it was more than a job. He served proudly with his “band of brothers,” and he became a tireless advocate for their interests, climbing in the ranks to become an acting fire captain, and the secretary-treasurer of the B.C.

Professional Fire Fighters’ Association. He noticed that too many colleagues were dying of cancer, says Rod MacDonald, a Vancouver firefighter, fellow union leader, and close friend. Hall became an expert in the toxic chemistry of fires and became a leading voice in a decade-long lobby to have the B.C. government recognize the resulting health risks.

It wasn’t all work. There were few union or personal travels that didn’t allow a stop at a live music venue. Nine years ago, still a bit wounded from the end of his first marriage, he met travel agent Katty Chaichian, through her brother, a lawyer for the firefighters’ union. Their marriage created a blended family of five children, now ranging in age from 16 to 24. Katty and Robert shared a number of passions, travel, for one, and public service. Katty is a key organizer of Vancouver’s classy Diamond Ball, an A-list annual fundraiser for the Canadian Cancer Society. Hall was an enthusiastic volunteer for the provincial firefighters’ Burn Fund.

But it was his health care advocacy that was his greatest cause. On Oct. 31,2005, Robert and colleagues from across B.C. sat in the public gallery of the provincial legislature for the first reading of Bill 11, the Workers Compensation Amendment Act. It recognized seven

cancers as occupational diseases for firefighters: brain, bladder, kick, rjdesjprtjpe^/ly brothers

ney, colorectal and ureter, primary non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and primary leukemia. Also recognized that day for their part in the long struggle were Robert’s friends, Rod, and Michael Hurley, a fellow guitarist and president of the Burnaby firefighters union. It was one of Robert’s proudest moments, says Michael. “I can remember Rob being in tears.” Less than a year later, Robert’s own health began to fail. Initial fears of cancer were discounted by his doctor, and Robert

and Rod headed to a union conference in Toronto in August 2006. They celebrated by slipping away to a martini bar. “We had many toasts to his health,” Rod recalls.

Unfortunately, Robert’s premonition was right. The next month he was diagnosed with colorectal cancer—one of the seven cancers in the new legislation. He knew the enemy all too well. Rod says the irony was painfully apparent, but Robert did not focus on such dark things. “We weren’t allowed to talk about Rob dying, he wanted to focus on living.” He died on Aug. 27, aged 51. On Sept. 5, he was accorded, appropriately, his friends agree, the sort of farewell given those killed in the line of duty. More than 1,000 firefighters from across Canada and the U.S. marched from Vancouver Fire Hall 7, where he had worked, to St. Andrew’s Wesley United Church. Before his death, Robert made several requests. He asked his union to continue the fight to extend the number of cancers eligible for compensation. He asked Michael to use his eulogy to urge the firefighters in attendance to have regular colonoscopies. “Make Rob’s life mean even more,” Michael asked the crowd.

A final request was that the funeral include Brothers in Arms, a song by Dire Straits, one of the great guitar bands. Michael knew the song well; he and Robert had played guitar together for years, in good times and bad. But this September morning-with Robert’s guitar standing by his flag-draped coffin and the ragged voice of Dire Straits front man Mark Knopfler filling the church-Michael says it was like hearing the lyrics for the first time. They said everything that needed saying about what the department meant to his friend, and vice-versa: Through these fields of destruction / Baptism of fire / I’ve witnessed your suffering / As battles raged higher / And though they did hurt me so bad/In the fear and alarm / You did not in arms.

KEN MACQUEEN