Put all ice rescue courses on hold, jury says

The jury made 15 recommendations, none of which are legally binding, after systematic problems with safety training programs were exposed.

Coroner's inquest jury delivers recommendations following deaths of 2 firefighters during training exercises

Gary Kendall (left), a veteran volunteer firefighter, and Adam Brunt (right), a firefighting student, died during ice water rescue training exercises five years apart. (Photos submitted by families)

Risky ice rescue courses that send firefighters and firefighting students into treacherous, fast-moving currents should be put on hold until they can be performed safely, a coroner's inquest into the deaths of two Ontario men recommended Thursday.

Jurors looking into what led to the deaths of Gary Kendall, 51, and Adam Brunt, 30, in separate ice rescue training exercises said the province should convene an expert committee to determine whether such training can be carried out in swift water without endangering participants.

The committee should consider what equipment, techniques, locations and standards would be required to bring the risks down to an acceptable level, the jury suggested.

The jury's 15 recommendations, which are not legally binding, were issued after the inquest heard from multiple witnesses, including fire officials, over more than two weeks.

A spokesman said the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development would be looking closely at the recommendations.

"We also encourage private training operators to ensure they are aware of them as well, including the recommendation to put this kind of training in abeyance until after further government decisions are made," Murray Gaudreau said Thursday in an email.

"We will continue to review the recommendations and will strive to address the jury's findings as we implement changes to improve our policies and procedures," Gaudreau said.

This video was shown at the inquest into the death of firefighter Gary Kendall. 0:30

Brunt's father, Al Brunt, said the recommendations brought some hope that others would be better protected in the future. But he said the real relief will come when the government adopts the jury's suggested policies.

"The people that are opting to get into first responders as a career deserve to be protected, deserve safety ... Just to take a training course they shouldn't have to put their life on the line and that's hopefully what these policies, once enacted, will protect going forward," he said outside the inquest.

"The closure aspect will come in time," he added.

No inquest after 2010 death of Gary Kendall

The lawyer representing Kendall's family said they were pleased to see issues that had haunted them for years finally get attention.

"One of the questions that came up time and time again during this inquest is whether it's possible to do this training safely at all, and everyone who testified only gave anecdotal evidence," Alex Van Kralingen said after the hearing.

Now, he said, experts will make that call.

"The only sad thing for me is that we did not have this coroner's inquest after the 2010 death of Gary Kendall," he added. "The family, as you know, asked for an inquest at the time because they felt that there were systemic issues surrounding this sort of training, which were not being properly managed. No one listened to them and Adam died in 2015."

Terry Harrison, an ice rescue course instructor, at the coroner's inquest of the deaths of two firefighters on Thursday, May 25, 2017. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Kendall, a veteran volunteer firefighter, and Adam Brunt, a firefighting student, died five years apart during ice rescue courses involving the same training company.

Kendall died in January 2010 after getting trapped under a fast-moving ice floe in waters near Sarnia, Ont. Brunt drowned in February 2015 while trying to float through a narrow gap in the ice on the Saugeen River near Hanover, Ont.

Their deaths — which the inquest jury deemed accidents — brought scrutiny to the industry surrounding private training courses for firefighters, which is currently unregulated.

No one listened and Adam died. - Alex Van Kralingen, lawyer

The inquest jury zeroed in on that industry, urging the province to create a certification system for all firefighter safety instructors.

The province should also build and maintain a database of firefighter training courses that includes safety records and any complaints made against the providers, the jury recommended. That database should be given to all Ontario municipalities to ensure they retain certified instructors.

'He thought it would be the best one'

Brunt's mother, Christy Brunt, said that information could have saved her son's life.

"He looked online to see what courses were the best out there and this one was one of the ones, all the kids were taking it, so he took this one, he thought it would be the best one," she said. "So if the accident was on there already, if Gary's death was on there, then maybe he wouldn't have taken the course."

The inquest heard that firefighters looking to learn about ice rescue practices may have no other choice than to turn to private instruction, since the Ontario Fire College suspended its own program three years ago.

Jurors heard the college, a provincial body that offers training to members of municipal fire departments, has yet to replace the program with an updated version.

The jury said the province should give regular reports on its response to the inquest's recommendations over the next three years.