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MPP tables bill to help protect firefighter trainees

Bill looks to close loophole of unregulated “cowboy” trainers with no safety standards

From left to right, OPFFA president Rob Hyndman, lawyer Alex Van Kralingen, Oshawa MP Jennifer French and Al Brunt, the father of Adam Brunt, presented French’s private members bill during a recent press conference. (Image courtesy of Jennifer French/YouTube)

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

The two men died trying to better learn how to save others.

One was a volunteer firefighter with over 17 years experience.

One was a Durham College student looking to add another safety course to his learning experience that might one day help him land a job.

Both died tragically in similar swift-water training exercises with the same company.

Until now, there has been no legislation, rules, frameworks or standards for operating these training courses. Essentially, anyone could do it.

Now, after years of working with the families, firefighters and appropriate ministries, Oshawa MPP Jennifer French has created a Private Member’s Bill to change that.

A surprising gap in the system

In 2010, 51-year-old Gary Kendall, a Point Edward volunteer firefighter, was taking part in an ice water rescue training exercise.

The course, being run by Newmarket company Herschel Rescue Training Systems, was taking place on the St. Clair River near Sarnia.

Participants, clad in thick, waterproof suits, prepped on the shoreline before dropping into the water amid jagged, flowing chunks of ice.

A video shown at the corner’s inquest into Kendall’s death shows participants floating amid the ice chunks, many pushing themselves up onto the still-frozen ice floe. Kendall, alongside another participant, are pushing their way toward the floe, choked between several large pieces of ice. The one man manages to climb onto the thick ice platform. However, before Kendall can push himself up, a large chunk of ice appears to flip on him and his head is pushed under the water and he disappears. He resurfaced four minutes later, and despite CPR, he died in hospital.

A Ministry of Labour investigation resulted charges to two men running the exercise, including the owner of Herschel Rescue, but these charges were later dropped. The village of Point Edward was fined $75,000 for not adequately ensuring the safety of its workers.

However, despite calls from Kendall’s family, no inquest into his death was performed.

Five years later, 30-year-old Adam Brunt would suffer a similar fate with the very same training company.

Brunt, a Durham College student looking to become a fire fighter, was taking a training course in swift water rescue on the Saugeen River. However, when his rescue harness became snagged on a piece of rebar on the bottom of the quick flowing river, he drowned.

At the time, there was still no regulations surrounding these training courses. There was no certification or licensing process for those who offered them, and they had become surprisingly popular with those looking to gain an edge in the competitive firefighter job market.

It was two years after Brunt’s death that the Ontario government would call a coroner’s inquest to investigate the circumstances behind both men’s tragic deaths.

“Anyone can invent a course, anybody can be a cowboy and advertise online and run weekend programs without standards, regulations or accountability and profit from eager firefighter hopefuls,” French said.

The results of that inquest, which took place in Toronto in May 2017, saw a list of 14 recommendations to the province and associated ministries, including a call to suspend all ice/swift water training exercises, that the province should set the locations for such training, create some type of monitoring process to ensure compliance, create a certification program for all trainers and exercises, create a public database of approved trainers and share statistical information related to any incidents, among others.

Following a push from French and a separate Private Member’s Bill, the Ontario government agreed to implement all of the recommendations made in the coroner’s final report.

Where they are in that process remains uncertain, and now, French has come forward with a path to do just that.

The Brunt Kendall Act

During a press conference on May 1, Al Brunt, the father of Adam Brunt was visibly emotional as he delivered a brief statement.

He told those in attendance that after his son’s death, he wished that moving forward, the tragedy would not be in vain, and it it could serve as a “catalyst for change.”

For French, that change comes in the form of her Private Member’s Bill, Bill 58 The Brunt Kendall Act.

The legislation covers all aspects of the coroner’s inquest recommendations and puts the onus onto the Office of the Fire Marshal to create minimum safety standards for these training courses, a certification and licensing process, along with creating a registry of these certified courses and the reporting of deaths and injuries related to any of these exercises. The bill also includes enforcement aspects and penalties for non-compliances prescribed under the Fire Prevention Act.

“It has taken a long time to get here. We’ve been working on the motion, and the letters, and the question and following up and all of that stuff. The bill itself though, I didn’t just shepherd it through, I worked with legislative council on all eight drafts and took it around to the different parties and made sure there input was reflected so that it is a viable solution,” French explains. “It is the right fix.”

It has been no easy task to get to this point, as finding the correct ministries responsible has been a legislative tangle. The trainees do not fall under the protection of the Ministry of Advanced Education and Training as the courses are not affiliated with any educational or post-secondary institution, they are not protected under the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services, as in Brunt’s case, he was not yet a fire fighter, and the issue does not technically fall to the Ministry of Labour as the training environments are not workplaces and the attendees are not employees.

“This has been a challenging loophole to close because it doesn’t fall to anyone in any ministry to fix, which is why I have worked so long and hard to come up with the right solution,” French says.

The bill received first reading on April 19, and with the timing, French called on the government to pass the legislation before the writ was dropped, effectively ending any business at Queen’s Park until after the June 7 election.

During Question Period, French pressed Premier Kathleen Wynne on the timing, and followed up on her previous promise of the government to implement the coroner’s recommendations.

“Our government is carefully addressing the findings and the recommendations of the coroner’s inquest into these deaths and the Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management took immediate action and suspended the water rescue program at the Ontario Fire College after this inquest,” said Marie-France Lalonde, the Minister of Community Safety and Correctional Services. “Our government continues to work with fire safety technical table where our fire safety partners  and experts meet to discuss the fire safety challenges and that table are looking at the recommendations and certainly we hope to have solutions.”

With the dropping of the writ on May 9, the bill will now remain in a legislative limbo until the next government comes to Queen’s Park. However, French says she’s not discouraged by the lack of action.

“The government has their priorities for end of session and since I have never seen this issue be a priority for them, I don’t expect they’re suddenly going to make it one,” she said prior to the writ dropping. “What happens after the next election is that the next government can pick up this bill and make it law.”

For Alex Van Kralingen, the lawyer who represnted the Kendall family following Gary’s death in 2010 and again during the coroner’s inquest, French’s legislation is a good step forward, and pushes the government that has “utterly failed” to act on the issue.

“When Adam died in 2015, Gary’s family was not only saddened that this government would not listen to them, but also saddened that another person had to die when proper regulation, likely would have made the difference,” he said. “This inaction from the relevant ministries and fire marshal’s offices is an abdication of the government’s responsibility to keep us safe. Quite frankly, it also disrespects the memories of Gary and Adam and the efforts their families have undertaken for years to try and get the government to pay attention.”

The bill also received high praise from the Ontario Professional Firefighters Association (OPFFA), which represents over 11,000 firefighters across the province.

“I applaud MPP French for bringing this legislation forward. We need to ensure that any high risk, low frequency training is done in this province with the utmost of care and ensure that all training and safety measures are in place,” says OPFFA president Rob Hyndman.  “Rest assured that I will continue to lend my voice to ensuring that this legislation gets passed.”

A similar sentiment was shared by Oshawa’s local firefighters as well. Oshawa Professional Firefighters Association president Peter Dyson was in attendance at Queen’s Park for the delivery of the bill, which he sees as a vital tool to protect firefighter trainees.

“Future firefighters are taking these outside training courses to differentiate themselves from other applicants and improve their skill set while applying to fire departments. Competition is high when applying so many applicants take these courses…we need to protect the health and safety of these future fighters,” he says. “The Local 465 will continue to work alongside all advocates for firefighter safety as we work to ensure that all firefighters are safe while undertaking training to hone and refine our skill sets.”