Inquest into deaths of two Ontario firefighters begins in Toronto

Story by: The Canadian Press

ice-rescue-trainingTORONTO — Relatives of two Ontario men who lost their lives during firefighter training exercises five years apart wiped their eyes as a coroner’s inquest that began Tuesday heard details of the fatal incidents.

The inquest into the deaths of Adam Brunt and Gary Kendall is expected to last two weeks.

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.

Brunt’s death came five years after a similar incident near Sarnia claimed the life of Gary Kendall, a volunteer firefighter.

Blain said Kendall signed up for the 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, near Sarnia, the lawyer said.

Participants were instructed to swim out to the floe and climb onto it, but that proved difficult as the ice was brittle, he said.

The floe then began moving quickly, hitting several participants in the back, he said. Some were struggling to get out of its way.

“One of them didn’t make it,” Blain said.

Kendall, who had 17 years of experience as a volunteer firefighter, was pushed along the edge of the ice until he went under — moments captured on video by another participant, he said.

He was under the ice for several minutes until someone saw his boot pop up and hauled him out, Blain said. Kendall was pronounced dead in hospital the next day.

Both training courses were run by the same company, which has been given standing at the inquest. Neither course was mandatory.

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 inquest also heard Tuesday from Jeffrey Attwell, the acting academic manager for the Ontario Fire College, which offers additional training to members of municipal fire departments, whether full-time or volunteer.

Attwell said the college offered a non-mandatory ice rescue training program that was developed in the wake of another coroner’s inquest. That course was split in two parts roughly seven years ago and then put on hold in 2014, he said. A new course soon to be implemented will actually keep participants out of the water, he said.

Rescuer safety is the top priority in any emergency situation — a fact that is stressed in training courses, Attwell said.

“Sometimes you can’t always achieve a rescue,” he said.

Brunt and Kendall’s deaths brought scrutiny on private training courses for firefighters, which aren’t mandatory or regulated. 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.

The inquest will examine the events surrounding Brunt and Kendall’s deaths and may make recommendations aimed at preventing similar deaths.

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