Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Due diligence

By David Gillespie   

Features Employment and hiring

Last fall my roof needed to be re-shingled. I had a few options: I could do it myself, hire a buddy, or go with a contractor.

Last fall my roof needed to be re-shingled. I had a few options: I could do it myself, hire a buddy, or go with a contractor. I quickly ruled out doing it myself as the job required more skill than my big thumbs could handle. I wasn’t sure I wanted to take a risk on my buddy – even though the price wasn’t much more than a couple of cases of beer.   

Fire departments need to ask a series of questions before hiring
trainers to teach technical rescue programs to their crews. 
Photo by Mark Alderman, Access Rescue Canada


So, I started asking for referrals, called those who were well recommended, got quotes, checked references, and finally picked a contractor. The result: my new roof is very nice. It definitely cost more than a do-it-yourself job but, so far, no leaks.

In many ways, the process of choosing a roofing contractor is similar to that of choosing a technical rescue trainer. With more fire departments expanding into technical rescue, and with an increased emphasis on NFPA compliance, many people are dabbling in technical rescue training. This is good news for fire departments: they may now find it easier to locate a trainer close to home. However, departments need to be aware of the risks and benefits of hiring outside trainers and know what questions to ask.

With increased emphasis on accountability, fire departments need to ensure the credibility of the companies they bring in to teach specialized training.


We consulted two training companies – Raven Rescue, based in Smithers, B.C., and Access Rescue Canada in Mississauga, Ont. – for tips about hiring technical rescue instructors. Walter Bucher operates Raven Rescue and has more than 25 years of experience in technical rescue teaching and fire response. His operation provides rope, swift water and ice training across Canada. Mark Alderman runs Access Rescue Canada and has more than 25 years of fire/rescue training and technical rescue experience with Canadian fire departments, government agencies and private businesses.

There are advantages to choosing a third-party trainer to provide in-house training or instructor certification training for your department. Bucher and Alderman cite the added level of expertise of a specialized company that has the resources to keep up to date on the latest training techniques and theories. However, choosing a third-party trainer can be difficult and time consuming, so we asked Bucher and Alderman about best practices for hiring outside trainers. Here is their advice.   

  • Ask for credentials. Credible trainers will have considerable training, professional memberships and a history of recent professional development.
  • Request references. Trainers worth considering can quickly provide professional references and a list of agencies they have taught in recent years.
  • Ask for liability insurance. Bucher and Alderman agree that a trainer should be able to provide proof of a minimum of $2 million in liability coverage and workers’ compensation insurance.
  • Check teaching materials. Alderman has seen some instructors use a mix of old photocopies from their initial training courses that are out of date. He says a published text, an online program or a customized PowerPoint presentation are minimum standards that departments should require of outside trainers. Departments should also ask what participants will take away from the training program for reference purposes down the road.
  • Ask for standard operating guidelines. Bucher suggests asking whether the company has internal guidelines, subscribes to a specific health-and-safety plan, or has paperwork stating that it follows specific practices on incident command, accountability and PPE, for example.
  • Ask if the training is based on NFPA standards. Bucher points out that many trainers talk the talk, but have little actual knowledge of the contents of those dense red books. Credible technical rescue trainers will have a strong working knowledge of NFPA 1670 (Operations and Training for Technical Rescue Incidents), 1006 (Rescue Professional Qualifications), 1500 (Safety and Health), 1951 (PPE for Technical Rescue), 1952 (Surface Water PPE and Gear) and 1983 (Rope and Equipment).
  • Find out what other standards the training company follows. Alderman points out that trainers must follow industry standards and best practices, but most municipalities, provinces and territories have additional standards for training or rescue operations that must be considered. Prospective trainers should be made aware of municipal bylaws that impact the response level of the local fire-rescue service, and the resulting training requirements (for example, shore-based rescue versus water entry).
  • Make sure the trainer is fit and up to the tasks required. It takes physical stamina for rescue students to swim in Class 3 white water, hang off buildings or rescue a hypothermic patient. Trainers must be physically fit and able to demonstrate those same tasks to a high level.
  • Determine what documentation the prospective trainer will provide to students. Bucher notes that training isn’t worth much if students can’t prove they have been certified, so proper documentation should be a requirement. In addition, ask whether the documentation can be quickly verified or replaced, for employment or legal reasons.
  • Find out the teacher-student ratio. For high-risk activities, such as high-angle rescue or swift-water rescue, industry best practices call for a 6:1 ratio. For low-risk activity, such as flat-water rescue, industry standards run as high as 12:1. Teacher-student ratios of, for example, 15:1 are inappropriate – unless you are doing knots in the classroom, and even then this ratio provides limited instructor-student contact.
  • Ask about a training safety plan. This should include a site-specific hazard assessment, either written or digital, following a visual inspection of the training area. Get a hard copy. Is there a safety briefing prior to field training with a dedicated safety officer for high-risk activities? Alderman notes that a detailed safety briefing should be held prior to field sessions and that the training agency should provide a dedicated safety officer for higher-risk activities. The trainer may assume safety officer responsibilities for low-risk activities.
  • Spell it out. Ask for a contract that specifies deliverables such as texts, audio-visual materials, a site-hazard assessment and a training safety plan. The contract should include delivery timelines and defined job-performance sign-offs to NFPA standard 1670 or other provincial standards.
  • Evaluate after the fact. Solicit feedback and comments from your members about the training program. Was there any followup by the trainer? A request for feedback and interest in continual improvement is an indication of professionalism.

These points highlight the many steps required to identify a credible training provider in order to meet fire industry standards, ensure safety for members in high-risk activities and reduce the risk profile for the department. But remember that, under Bill C-45, all firefighters are responsible for the safety of our fellow brothers and sisters. So let’s do our due diligence. Prepare questions and shop smartly. That way, we can ensure that everyone goes home.

David Gillespie is a 16-year veteran of the fire service. He is a technical rescue instructor-trainer and a certified incident safety officer. He has seven years of experience as a chief training officer and is currently acting captain with Peterborough Fire Services in Ontario. Gillespie helped to develop the Ontario water/ice rescue program and is a member of F.O.O.L.S. International and the International Society of Fire Service Instructors. He can be reached at

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