How safe are U.S. fire training companies?

Training should be in a safe environment for students; here are eight components to look for when choosing a private training company

The recent death of a firefighter trainee during an ice-rescue exercise conducted by a private training company in Canada has prompted calls for industry regulations in that country. Critics say that training not conducted or authorized by a fire department does not have to adhere to the same safety standards.

The training exercise, which claimed the life of trainee Adam Brunt after he became trapped under ice for about 15 minutes, was not the first fatal incident the Toronto-area company has dealt with. In 2010, the company’s owner was acquitted after being charged in the death of a volunteer firefighter during a similar exercise.

And, although this incident happened outside the U.S., it doesn’t mean we are exempt from similar problems happening in our backyard.

Dalan Zartman, a training expert, regular FireRescue1 contributor and owner of Rescue Methods, a privately-owned training company, opened up about how these programs should be delivered in the United States.

"Throughout the U.S., there are many private training companies that are not regulated and may be used at the discretion of the client," Zartman said.

Instead of throwing these students in headfirst, Zartman recommended that students progress from environments with as little risk as possible to those with significant risk management.

"This problem of unreliable training and a lack of accountability is most prevalent in private training companies that lack oversight or standard compliance," he said. "These companies make their own rules and do not come under the auspice of a governing authority."  

One of the criticisms coming out of Canada is that those hoping to become firefighters are turning to unregulated private-company training to bolster their resumes.

"To minimize risk without compromising realism, most U.S. training models require that students would learn their skill sets on the ground and progressively build towards applying those skill sets on a static body of water," he said of the incident in Canada. "If the client required that a swift-water application be used for ice training, a waiver would have to be signed acknowledging the inherent risks of ice rescue operations on moving water. 

"Parameters would be established limiting the acceptable training current to 1 knot, and a certified dive team would be required in a ready position. It goes without saying that rescuers and students would follow the previously mentioned progression model and remain on tag lines at all times with adequate retrieval measures in place. This would be an example of minimizing the risk in a high-risk environment."

Zartman recommended clients look for these eight components when choosing a private training company.

  1. It should operate under the auspices of a regulatory agency, such as university, government agencies or a membership-based professional community.
  2. It must have well-documented administrative components like curriculum, skill sheets, student manuals and training procedures.
  3. It must have administrative components and hands-on deliverables that comply with or exceed NFPA, OSHA and FEMA guidelines.
  4. All reputable training companies will have both insurance and legal waivers.
  5. It must have a mechanism for retaining student records.
  6. Certified instructors are imperative.
  7. It should have an ample volume of reference lists and course evaluation history.
  8. It should provide training proposals that offer an appropriate blend and progression of limited risk with realism.

These components are important in helping ensure that students who decide to take privately operated safety courses are not putting themselves in danger.

"As a swift water and ice rescue technician, there would have to be extremely rare and compelling indications of a savable victim for me to risk a go rescue involving swift water and ice," he said. As a public safety diver, the risk/benefit narrows even further. As an instructor and owner of a private training company, the risk would be unacceptable. 

"This is a tremendous tragedy and we grieve for our Canadian brothers and sisters. We all need to continue to improve our pursuit of providing challenging training without sacrificing the safety and welfare of the student."

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