Can we make private-run firefighter training safer?

The death of a Canadian firefighter trainee raises serious issues about how to improve firefighter safety at privately operated training classes

On Feb. 8, Canadian firefighter trainee Adam Brunt was participating in a water and ice rescue class operated by a private training company. Brunt was taking the course to improve his skills and his chances of landing a job on a career fire department.

But things went horribly wrong that Sunday afternoon. During a hands-on evolution, Brunt was trapped under the ice — for 15 minutes — and died. The same training company had a similar ice-rescue death in 2010; there was a trial and an acquittal.

It will be up to Canadian authorities to determine if Brunt's death was a case of negligence or bad luck. One area fire chief best summed up what we all believe when he said: "No one should ever die from a training incident."

Brunt's death exposed a lack of formal oversight that private firefighting and rescue training companies are held to in that country. It's much the same here in the United States.

That's not to say that all private training companies are dangerous; if they were, this issue would have come up long ago. And it is not to say that all regulated training conducted by municipal or volunteer departments are completely safe; history proves that out.

But those seeking outside training are doing so in a buyer-beware market with the highest stakes possible — their lives. A level of oversight would be good for both students and private companies.

One solution would be a program that offered a universal certification to training companies. It could be voluntary, administered by the U.S. Fire Administration and fee-based — so as to not shut down every time Congress can't keep the government's lights on.

Think of it like a variation on the USDA's certified organic food program. For no more than $1,500, food producers can prove that they meet the organic criteria and have the right to display the organic food label.

Food producers don't have to do it. But if they want their claims of organic to have authenticity in the minds of their customers, they will achieve certification.

It's not a huge leap from this model to one where there are safety and expertise criteria for private training companies, a method of verifying that and an official seal of approval once those marks are hit.

Private companies offer a valuable service to firefighters and fire departments. However, they should bear the burden of proving their competence; it shouldn't fall to the firefighters to evaluate if a company is a bad actor or not.

There is no guarantee that every firefighter who goes through training will come out uninjured. Yet, it is what we must strive for. A system that gets us closer to that goal is good for the entire fire service.

This is only one idea and I know there are many more. Add your ideas and comments below.

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