Death during River Rescue Training and the Ministry of Labour backpedaling

photo: Owen Sound Sun Times
Almost a year to the day after Adam Brunt, a pre-service firefighting student, drowned while taking a river rescue course, the Ministry of Labour announced that no charges will be laid against Herschel Rescue, the private training provider. This is the second time that this provider was acquitted on charges in a training death.

There are two stories here: one is Herschel Rescue and private rescue training in general, and the other is the Ministry of Labour (MoL) and the definition of their role. Of the two, the Herschel story is the more distasteful, but the MoL is likely the more important. Let's start with distaste:
This is the second training death during a Herschel Rescue course.  A firefighter was killed during an ice rescue exercise in 2010, getting pushed under water by a floating ice sheet, and being trapped there for 3-4 minutes before being recovered and later dying in hospital (story here). 

This 2015 drowning was a slightly different scenario, this being an open enrollment Swift Water Rescue course (which also happened to take place in winter on a river lined with ice shelves). The course was primarily populated with pre-service firefighter students looking to pad their resume with 'certifications' to improve their employ-ability (that new firefighter hiring does not require such training does not seem to have any impact on the marketplace). 

News reports shape the scenario (link here): a single instructor for 12 students; the instructor was in the water with the group, doing a swim through with the whole group at once; no downstream safety, spotters, or throwbags. As the group crawled out of the water it was recognized someone was missing. What is known is that the local fire department was dispatched and performed the rescue, which leads one to conclude that the training group and instructor were unable to execute the rescue themselves.  

This story was front page news for the month of February (2015) with professional opinions from all stakeholders emerging. The firefighting service pointed to the tragedy of this as a recurring issue for this one provider, and the need for training guidelines and standards (link here). The Fire Fighting in Canada editor concluded 

" logically falls to the agencies that have the ability to enact regulations... to take the proverbial bull by the horns, develop guidelines, and ensure that training for any aspect of fire fighting be done as safely as possible, no matter who provides it" (source here).

The fact is, private training - either for professional or participant skills training - is 'buyer beware', with the obvious issue is that the buyer does not know what to beware of. 

Raven Rescue, one of the higher profile technical training organizations, authored an opinion piece dissembling the Herschel story (link here). They urged caution, as simply regulating mandatory ratios was not going to prevent a similar scenario, writing 

"...there have been calls to limit the student/instructor ratio for ice rescue and swiftwater training to 6:1. The attitude seems to be: if Terry Harrison [ed note: Herschel Rescue instructor/owner] had fewer students in his classes, Adam Brunt and Gary Kendall would still be alive. We believe the answer is considerably more complex and a simple, knee jerk solution will not prevent more deaths. We believe the crux of the issue is that Harrison required his students to do a group swim in swiftwater with open leads surrounded by substantial ice mantles. No student/instructor ratio, no matter how small, could achieve the safety required for such a high risk, uncontrolled activity" (source here).

source: Raven Rescue
This is where the story gets distasteful: in response to this article, Terry Harrison posted an embarrassing 'everything-you-learn-about-crisis-management-tells-you-not-to-do-this' post to Facebook. The post lasted just a couple days before better judgement prevailed, but long enough for it to be spread to every professional in field. It was long and convoluted, essentially accusing Raven of using this training death for marketing gain. There were lots of CAPITAL LETTERS, exclamation points! and question marks??? This excerpt cuts out the ranting and gets to the point of the post:

"To publish this story at this time one would think the organization doing so would take the time to research and consider all the facts, the people involved, and research the event more than just reading the media releases…..facts that you should be able to answer before making conclusions or comments. Can Raven Rescue answer any of these questions?.......or is their article really just marketing their training at the expense of a life, and shows no respect to the victims, their families or the rescuers.……did Raven Rescue do any research to discover if the media reports were accurate about either accident? Because unfortunately I must inform you that the media reports are not accurate in any of the facts, reasons or information. It amazes me that without any information on the site, the exercise, conditions, participants, they can conclude the reason the incident happened." (source: deleted Herschel Rescue Facebook post) *for the record, I've been informed that Raven did, in fact, do their homework before publishing their article.

The post had a long list of questions, asking does Raven actually know what happened, implying (rightly, to an extent) that only he knew. That he did not go on to elucidate the situation did not help matters. The questions were left hanging - the speculation continued (for the record, I have heard a fairly complete version of this training death, based on first hand accounts, however it comes to me second hand so I will refrain from elaborating for fear of spreading hear-say).

The Raven article stated that rather than regulation, shoppers need to be more savvy. This is the 'let the marketplace deal with this' approach (common for adventure operators, as well, when the topic of regulation comes up), but consumers don't know what they are buying. There is an assumption (that consumers make) that if the service is offered, then it must be vetted and quality. This is not always the case. Raven lists some good questions to always ask a provider, however those same recommendations could form the bones of regulating training providers. 

The Owen Sound Sun Times reports the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities is 
working with the Ministry of Community and Correctional Services, the Office of the Fire 
Marshall and Emergency Management and the Ministry of Government and Consumer 
Services to manage the provision of single skills training programs, especially those where a 
risk to health and safety is recognized. In light of the recent MoL findings, I would be 
surprised if this goes anywhere.

Part 2: the more important part...

Ministry of Labour declined to press charges in this case (announced Feb. 2016, link here). As predicted, since the student was not employed by the operator, the MoL regulations regarding providing a safe workplace did not apply. 

Regular readers of this blog will recall that a MoL finding against Blue Mountain Resort reached into operations, essentially saying that if an injury occurs to a client/visitor, and if that same hazard is present for workers, then MoL regs apply (report here). This essentially said that any participant injury now had to be reported to the MoL, in some cases requiring a work stoppage and investigation. This was a big step for the MoL and significantly expanded their reach. Less reported was that the finding lost on appeal (report here), restricing MoL to specific workplace-only standards.

This Herschel Rescue event confirms the limited scope of the MoL, and shows the Blue Mountain finding as an adventure in expansionism that was shut down. It seems the MoL is now back to their literal role of protecting labourers, and a potential lever to manage any number of unregulated industries (such as technical training or adventure tourism) is gone.

Some take away messages:

  1. If you are reading this then you are likely a provider of services. How can you build a client information system that transfers some risk and decision making to your customers; in lieu of regulations, how can you make your clients informed consumers and get beyond the 'just trust me' school of marketing? Offering the info proposed by Raven Rescue as part of your program package would be a good step.
  2. 'Institutional pressure' is an unpredictable thing. It would seem that a tragedy like this should spark change (institutional pressure is the phenomenon by which social expectations push change), but this story is fizzling out, and I see no one stepping up to push the regulations discussed by the stakeholders in this story
  3. Review the 'everything-you-learn-about-crisis-management-tells-you-not-to-do-this' info available online. Please.