From the Editor July 2017: Government oversight needed
Laura KingFeatures Hot Topics Opinion annex Canada firefighter
It’s a double play on words, to say that firefighter Gary Kendall and firefighting student Adam Brunt were in over their heads during swift-water rescue training in the St. Clair and Saugeen rivers in 2010 and 2015 respectively. But it’s the truth, though no fault of their own.
A two-week inquest examining the drowning deaths of the two men – Kendall, 51, and Brunt, 30 – ended May 25 in Toronto.
Jurors recommended that there be no swift-water, ice-rescue courses offered in Ontario until a standard is in place. Which changes nothing, given that the Ontario Fire College stopped doing ice-water rescue training in 2015 (it offered only still-water ice rescue) and no other agency offers ice-water rescue training in fast-moving water.
Private training provider Herschel Rescue, which was at both incidents, ceased offering its swift-water ice-rescue course after Brunt’s death.
The focus of the inquest turned, many times, to the rationale behind training in inherently dangerous conditions when there are few, if any, rescues in swift-moving, ice water. Usually, jurors heard, those calls turn into recoveries even before firefighters arrive, having had to report to the hall, don their suits, and get to the scene.
Why, then, jurors and coroner William Lucas asked, did firefighters train in such treacherous conditions?
Because, firefighters and even Point Edward Chief Doug MacKenzie, testified, taxpayers expect that firefighters will show up and, at the very least, attempt a rescue, and if they don’t, then the department will be “crucified.”
That logic, the corner suggested, is flawed.
It is, of course, up to municipal councils to set levels of service. So if council determines, based on information from the fire chief, that training in swift-moving, ice water, is too dangerous for firefighters, and that rarely, if ever, are rescue attempts successful, then does it not make sense to avoid such treacherous training?
“If your firefighters were at a house fire that was fully engaged you wouldn’t for a moment think about sending in your firefighters if you thought there’s any chance they would die rather than rescue someday and, would you agree with me that probably public perception would support you on that?”
Chief MacKenzie closed his eyes, briefly, no doubt reflecting on the turmoil of the seven years since Kendall’s death, then answered.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he said, “and there are a handful of people who would thing you’re the greatest thing and another handful that would be bashing you.”
While riding on tailgates, removing SCBA during overhaul, and putting firefighters on roofs of burning buildings were standard practice until enough firefighters died that everyone eventually smartened up, the drownings happened in conditions that most trainers avoid, but in which Herschel Rescue proprietor Terry Harrison thrived.
Putting volunteer firefighters – of various ages and physical abilities – and college students in swift-moving, ice water was unnecessary.
Whether Kendall and Brunt should have refused to enter the water is moot. That the training in fast-moving, ice water was offered at all is a testament to the lack of government oversight, the disinterest by the province in opening the can of worms that is private training providers, and the lack of leadership by the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management. Even worse is the fact that the deaths were five years apart and nothing was done in the interim.
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