Unregulated ice rescue courses the only option for firefighters, inquest hears

By The Canadian Press
May 9, 2017 - 1:15am

TORONTO — Firefighters seeking training in ice rescue operations may have no other choice but to take unregulated private courses such as the ones in which two Ontario men died, an inquest into the men's deaths heard as it began Tuesday.

The Ontario Fire College, a provincial body that offers training to members of municipal fire departments, put its own ice rescue program on hold in 2014 and has yet to replace it with an updated version, the college's acting academic manager told the coroner's inquest.

Jeffrey Attwell said he wasn't aware of any other options outside of the private training industry, which currently has no government oversight or certification.

Asked if anyone could simply open a private safety training program, Attwell said: "I believe so."

The private safety training industry has been under scrutiny since the deaths of Gary Kendall in 2010 and Adam Brunt in 2015. Both men lost their lives during ice training exercises run by the same company.

The training wasn't mandatory for either of them, though Brunt's family has said he was hoping it would give him a leg up in his career.

Outside the inquest, Brunt's parents expressed hope that the proceeding would bring changes to protect others like their son, and frustration that those steps hadn't been taken in time to save him.

Christy Brunt said she believed her son would still be alive had an inquest been called after Kendall's death in 2010.

"Our goal now is to make sure there isn't somebody else," her husband added.

Brunt, a firefighting student from Clarington, Ont., died in February 2015 after getting trapped under ice in a river during a rescue exercise.

In his opening statement, the coroner's lawyer said it appeared a strap on Brunt's suit got snagged on something under the water as he attempted to float through a narrow gap in the ice in the Saugeen River.

Michael Blain said Brunt was under water for some time before emergency crews managed to free him, and he was pronounced dead in hospital.

A similar incident near Sarnia claimed Kendall's life.

Blain said Kendall, a volunteer firefighter with 17 years of experience, signed up for a late January course at the last minute after having to cancel a cottage trip.

One of the course's exercises got changed on the spur of the moment after a large ice floe appeared in the water in Point Edward, the lawyer said.

Participants were instructed to swim out to the floe and climb onto it, but the ice began moving quickly, hitting several participants as they tried to swim out of the way, he said.

"One of them didn't make it," Blain said.

Kendall was under the ice for several minutes until someone managed to pull him out, the lawyer said. He was pronounced dead in hospital the next day.

A Ministry of Labour investigation into Kendall's death led to a $75,000 fine for the municipality of Point Edward under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. 

The company running both courses, Herschel Rescue Training Systems, has been given standing at the inquest and its owner is expected to testify later this week.

The Ontario Fire College started offering its ice rescue training courses after a coroner's inquest into a fatal shore rescue in 1990, but the program was never mandatory, Attwell said.

What's more, those who enrolled had to undergo the training at the college's location on Lake Simcoe, since the college doesn't send instructors to local fire departments, he said. He acknowledged that meant any fire department wanting to train on its own territory had to hire a private company.

The Ontario government vowed two years ago to look into regulating the private safety training industry.

New Democrat Jennifer French, who was the party's community safety critic at the time of Brunt's death, said the private safety training world remains a Wild West of sorts.

"They're not under anyone's umbrella, they're not under any ministry's care, they're no one's jurisdiction and to this point the ministries have been saying 'not my problem' so now they're being forced to say 'OK how do we make it not just our problem but our solution,'" she said outside the hearing.

Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press

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Tue, 09 May 2017 16:04:45 -0400

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