POLITICS

Private safety training companies that teach firefighters aren't regulated

02/11/2015 03:48 EST | Updated 04/13/2015 05:59 EDT
TORONTO - The recent death of a firefighting student during an ice rescue exercise conducted by a private company in Ontario has prompted calls for the province's oversight of the safety training industry that is not regulated.

While the industry has established best practices for firefighter training, including preferred instructor-to-student ratios for high-risk exercises, there's nothing to force private companies to adopt them, fire officials said.

"Anybody could start teaching something tomorrow, and if somebody is willing to pay them the money and take the course, there's nothing that says that they can't do it — it's not necessarily safe and it's not necessarily protected," said Jeff Van Rybroeck, the fire chief in the southwestern Ontario municipality of South-West Oxford Township.

Fire departments who contract out specialty training know to do their due diligence, but firefighting students looking to flesh out their resumes might not be as savvy, he said in a phone interview.

"For a lot of these types of companies, they're almost preying on these pre-fire students because they know those students are willing to pay the money to take the training, and unfortunately they don't have the knowledge of who they should be going to for some of these things," he said.

"If there was some type of registration system or even an endorsement that these people would have to go out to, it would make the industry a lot safer."

The private safety training industry has come under scrutiny after a firefighting student died Sunday during a rescue exercise in Hanover, Ont. Adam Brunt, 30, was trapped under the ice for about 15 minutes, police said.

He was one of 12 students taking part in the class, with one instructor, police said.

Police and the Ontario Ministry of Labour are investigating.

A ministry spokesman said the exercise was run by a Toronto-area company called Herschel Rescue Training Systems. A man named Terry Harrison identifies himself as the company's owner and master instructor, and as a Toronto-area firefighter, on his LinkedIn profile.

A man by the same name was acquitted after being charged in 2010 under the Occupational Health and Safety Act in the death of a volunteer firefighter, Gary Kendall, who died during a similar ice water rescue exercise near Sarnia, Ont., according to media reports. A judge ruled he had not officially been designated as incident commander for the exercise, the media reports said. The municipality of Point Edward was fined $75,000, while charges against its fire chief were dropped.

Neither Harrison nor the company responded to a request for comment. The Ministry of Labour would not say whether the same man was involved in both incidents, but several industry insiders confirmed that was the case.

A post on the company's Facebook page lists last weekend's training course in Hanover as costing $400 including accommodations. Another post advertises a five-day rope rescue class in Brampton at the end of the month for $500.

Brunt's father, Al Brunt, said his son signed up for the ice rescue course "because he wanted to have it on his resume" as he sought work in a highly competitive field.

In Ontario, firefighting programs are offered through colleges and other accredited institutions. The Ontario Fire College, which is run by the office of the fire marshal, provides ongoing training for active firefighters.

Private companies are "market-driven," and set up courses based on perceived demand, said Richard Boyes, executive director of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs.

Many would-be firefighters believe taking additional training will give them a leg up on their rivals, Boyes said.

"Firefighting is a highly sought after position so that's what makes the candidates try to get any advantage they can," he said.

However, fire chiefs across Canada are looking for basic skills first and foremost, he said, pointing to the standards and best practices established by the National Fire Protection Association, an international non-profit organization for the firefighting industry.

Fire departments generally prefer to arrange their own specialty training — such as ice rescues or dealing with hazardous materials — for fire crews, either in house or through a third-party provider, he said.

Van Rybroeck, a former training officer, said measures are needed to ensure those taking safety courses aren't putting themselves at risk.

"No one should ever die from a training incident," he said.

"Training should be protected, it should provide safety for the students, it should provide a safe environment where they can learn and become proficient at their skills. It should never be something where they're faced with danger and they have to fear for their life."