By Laura King
Feb. 11, 2015, Toronto – Out of respect for the family of Adam Brunt, the Durham College student who died during ice-water rescue training in Hanover on Sunday, I waited a couple of days to say out loud what everyone else is thinking: How many students have to die in Ontario before the training industry is regulated, and simple standards – such as teacher-student ratios, safety briefings, safety plans, safety officers and rapid intervention teams – become mandatory?
It seems we’ve had this conversation before – about the acceptable number of deaths of seniors in retirement homes – and we all know the Herculean effort required to convince government to make sprinklers mandatory.
But training companies are different; they are not regulated – by any agency or any government department. Not the Office of the Ontario Fire Marshal and Emergency Management (OFMEM), not the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities, and, in this case, perhaps not even the Ministry of Labour (which is investigating), given that there was no employer/employee relationship between the training provider and the students.
By now you’ve read that the company that offered the program in Hanover, Herschel Rescue Training Systems, is the same one that provided the ice-water rescue course in Point Edward, Ont., in 2010, when firefighter Gary Kendall became trapped under ice for four minutes, and died. The ratio? One instructor to 18 students.
Herschel owner/operator Terry Harrison was charged under the Occupational Health and Safety Act (OHSA). In that case, the act applied because Harrison had been brought in by the fire department, which was the employer. The judge determined that the fire chief had not technically handed over authority to Harrison that day, and therefore Harrison was not the supervisor, so the charges were dismissed. The town paid a $75,000 fine for failing to ensure the safety of its workers, and that was that.
Sunday’s training program in Hanover was different, an open course, advertised on Herschel’s Facebook page – one instructor and 12 students, according to police – offered to individuals like Brunt, who enrolled in the session to add to his resume, hoping it would help him get hired.
Which I find interesting. Not a single fire department in Ontario – that I’m aware of –lists ice-water rescue among its minimum requirements for hiring. Conventional wisdom used to be that the more courses a firefighter candidate listed on a resume, the better the chance of employment. And out of that conventional wisdom sprung myriad training companies – many run by career firefighters who work shifts and have the time to devote to a second job – offering courses in everything from ice-water rescue to auto extrication.
Particularly now, with standardized firefighter candidate testing in Ontario, those courses aren’t necessary to get hired, and prospective firefighters need not spend money taking them.
That message, however, hasn’t filtered down to firefighter candidates, who still clamour to enroll in courses to build their CVs. As one former fire chief told me yesterday, all that mattered when he was hiring was that candidates had NFPA Firefighter I and II, did a great interview, and were the right fit for the department.
“If I want them to have ice-water rescue or any other course,” he said, “I’ll put them through the program because I want them to be taught to do it our way.”
So, what’s the recourse? Well, if social media is a barometer of public opinion, the outrage over Brunt’s tragic and preventable death should mean immediate changes. But we all know that’s unlikely. Who, or what agency or organization, would champion that change?
Well, given that that there have been two training deaths, in similar circumstances, in five years, and given that fire fighting and all its offshoots are inherently dangerous, it follows that realistic training for such pursuits is also inherently dangerous and, like fire fighting, requires regulatory control.
Therefore, it logically falls to the agencies that have the ability to enact regulations – the OFMEM, the Ministry of Colleges, Universities and Training, or the Ministry of Labour – to take the proverbial bull by the horns, develop guidelines, and ensure that training for any aspect of fire fighting be done as safely as possible, no matter who provides it.
And while organizations such as the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs, the training officers association, the union (which has the most political clout), and the volunteer firefighters association have no regulatory authority, it would be shameful for them not to advocate for such change.
To start, fire-service leaders can petition politicians for an inquest into Brunt’s death. (There were calls for an inquest into Kendall’s death but none was ever held.) Inquests produce recommendations, which, while not binding, can – at the very least – draw mainstream media attention to an issue and may potentially lead to legislation.
Another option is to press Ontario’s fire-services advisory committee for OH&S, and the NFPA, to develop guidelines for training similar to those for live fire or technical rescue, and which would be applicable to third-party trainers.
There must be other options, and people far smarter than me and more connected to training and rules and standards and guidelines might have better ideas. If you do, speak up. Gary Kendall and Adam Brunt need you to be their champion.