Water & ice rescue - taking the plunge
Published: 01 September, 2006
Firefighter John Wallace and his partner Anthony Vanderholst from Kingston, Ontario, hit the local news when they rescued Eddie the Walker Hound off the ice in the Cataraqui river, Canada, near the end of February 2005. Here, Ann-Marie Knegt presents their exclusive story.
As a fire brigade your concern is not necessarily for a stranded dog, but you are very concerned about owners going after their dogs, says John Wallace of the Kingston, Ontario Fire Department. “We had just experienced a casualty like that. In Ottawa a man trying to rescue his dog drowned when he went on the ice. In the Cataraqui river incident, the owner was pretty upset and the dog had been in the water for at least 20 minutes to half an hour, so the dog was pretty happy to see us and he tailed it off the ice as soon as we pulled him out,” he laughs. Going out on the ice didn’t bother him in the slightest. “We have more dog rescues than people rescues and I have a dog myself.”
Following the story:
A year on, the Kingston Ontario water and ice rescue team was astonished when F&R called and told John he had made the cover of the magazine and that we would be following up on the story behind it.
In conjunction with several other departments along the Rideau Canal that runs from Lake Ontario to Ottawa, the Kingston Fire Department set up designated water and ice rescue teams about six years ago. John Wallace explains: “All the fire departments along this canal work with the same equipment, along the same guidelines and we use the same techniques.” John explains that the system works well for the brigade and for the local community. “I wouldn’t say we perform many rescues, but the potential is always there, whereas before we carried out strictly shore-based rescues. Positions in the team rotate every shift. There are five members in a team. First in line are the primary rescuers who go out on the ice. They have a secondary back-up, who are responsible for them. The commander oversees the operation.”
The team prepares itself for a rescue by firstly donning their survival suits in the station . The department has also assigned a specialised vehicle for ice rescue. In the case of Eddie’s rescue, both John and Anthony were secured by a 600-foot line which was under the control of one of the other team members. The team also has an inflatable boat available, but they did not need to use it on that day because the water wasn’t very deep and they weren’t very far from the riverside. “This is a unique little boat called a Fortuna, which goes out to 1,200 feet (approximately 400 metres). You can either walk it out or row it out. It works very well.” John’s most memorable ice rescue memory was not on his own account though. “My most memorable time on the ice was when we had to tie a rope around a police officer’s waist because we were not allowed to go out ourselves. A person was spotted out on the ice but - although it was the middle of winter - there was still a ferry channel open in Lake Ontario. This individual was rather close to the channel, so people were quite concerned that he would jump in. Basically we just stood and watched while the police officer took steps to retrieve him.”
Almost all firefighters of Kingston Fire Department are trained in ice rescue. Every crew has one member appointed who is responsible for training and outside agency makes sure that they are certified and up-to-date.During the winter the ice rescue teams go out several times with different ice conditions. “Early in the year when the ice is good and solid you don’t have to fight your way through. However, in spring when the ice breaks it can be a real struggle to get out there. The boat I was talking about earlier is like a wide canoe, the two sides are open, you walk in the boat and push through the ice, which can be very hard at times.” and assess the range of rescue processes. “We offer a water rescue Level 1 operator course, which is essentially working in moving water. We teach people how to be safe on, in, and around water, everything from the equipment you need to wear, entering the water, how you move through water, land-based techniques etc. “Obviously the idea is that rescuers try to avoid entering the water, so you are safer and able to do many more things. There is a whole range of land-based techniques using lines and ropes, floating devices, inflatable boats, rescue rafts and rescue pathways which can be deployed. We have a very comprehensive range of available equipment. Beyond that we get participants to enter the water and train in safe, defensive and aggressive swimming, as well as swimming with
COLD SNAP ALLOWS TRAINING:
Unique fluctuations in the UK’s weather system allowed firefighters in Galashiels, to train in the latest ice rescue techniques in March 2006. Members of the station’s White Watch crew broke through the two-inch thick waters at Swan Pond, near Bowden, to practice with the Ice Path, a 15m inflatable platform which allows firefighters to reach victims on ice as quickly as possible.
Fire service personnel from all over the world head to the mountainous Snowdonia District in Wales, UK, every year to follow water rescue training courses at the Outreach Rescue Centre, an organisation specialising in every aspect of technical rescue. On the day that F&R spoke to Senior training instructor Tony Emsley it was an almost unpleasant 34 degrees C outside, so the teams preparing for that afternoon’s training session were very much looking forward to entering the water. However, in winter, Tony says, when the water temperature is less tempting you usually get the best training sessions. Tony has been at the centre for 12 years and has been giving water rescue training for eight of those. Outreach delivers water rescue training as part of the numerous programmes within its relationship with the UK’s Fire Service College and Coventry University. Before Tony started working at Outreach he was in the UK’s Royal Air Force performing search and rescue.
“With both helicopters and land teams we used to respond to major floods, aircraft crashes and other incidents. One event I responded to was the Towyn floods in North Wales when the sea defences were breached. It took us up to four days to evacuate mostly elderly people,” he explains. Outreach runs a series of water training courses, ranging from operational response to flood incident management. The training centre takes people who have no prior knowledge up to being able to operate lines attached to further control and safeguard.
“Additionally, we teach casualty-handling in water and casualty recovery from water environments. Level 1 is a five day programme and at the end of it the student is competent as an in-water and water-side rescuer.” Level 2 is all about access and egress from highly technical water environments. Tony explains this is not an advanced version of Level 1, but it adds more skills to the ones acquired in the previous course. For instance, it teaches the student how to perform rescue from high viaducts, canal sides or docksides with more rope work involved. Basically, it involves the technical skills a water rescue professional needs to get into and out of environments such as the ones mentioned above. On top of this, Outreach has an instructor course which consists of the Level 1 water rescue course plus a consolidation period. After that, the student embarks on a five-day instructor skills course, where everyone runs training scenarios for the other candidates.
“In this manner we are making sure that people’s personal and technical skills are satisfactory and we also evaluate the candidates’ instructional ability. This is not an assessed course, it is a skills training course. After leaving us, people can be individually assessed in their own brigade if they then so choose or they can come back here for a three-day course to be assessed as an instructor by ourselves,” he continues. Apart from all the options mentioned earlier, the centre supplies a casualty course, called ‘Casualty management in specialist rescue’. This deals with casualty injuries in a range of specialist rescue situations including those associated with water.
Tony explains: “The people who attend are generally extremely enthusiastic about the training. Especially within the fire service, candidates almost always have the motivation of volunteers for the subject. They come here because they want to add to their repertoire of skills. So, like anything else, when you are working with volunteers the motivation and enthusiasm tends to be high. This week for instance is fantastic, we have a Medical Consultant coming in who works at an Accident and Rope skills are an essential part of water rescue training. Emergency department, who will give external medical advice while the technical issues are addressed by ourselves. It is a great combination working with experts and people greedy to learn.” Through its links with the Fire Service College in Moreton-in-Marsh, Outreach trains people from all over the world. Recently, the centre has had students from several Middle East countries, plus Gibraltar, Thailand and Hong Kong, just to name a few. For more information, about Outreach Rescue, please visit: www.outreachrescue.co.uk