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The importance of water rescue training

Firefighters and bystanders jumped to the rescue of a dog on Feb. 22nd, but water rescues are usually handled by Search and Rescue teams. – © File photo

By Jaymie L. White

Special to Wreckhouse Press

PORT AUX BASQUES – Newfoundland weather is notorious for being unpredictable, and with that comes significant dangers, especially for those who spend time in the woods or on the water. Living on an island with a sizable land mass and extensive wilderness between many communities, the probability of an accident occurring where rescue is necessary is increased.

On Feb. 22, Channel-Port aux Basques volunteer firefighters and locals rushed to rescue of a dog that fell through the ice in Grand Bay and, after the rescue, concerns were raised on social media that there isn’t a Search and Rescue team in relative proximity who have the necessary water rescue training to complete such a rescue safely, and the fire department who responded to the call also didn’t have the proper water rescue training.

Tristan Hulan with Stephenville Search and Rescue said there are approximately 27 Search and Rescue teams across the province who normally cover a specific jurisdiction, and Barachois Search and Rescue, based in Stephenville Crossing, would normally cover the Port Aux Basques area.

Hulan said the Stephenville Volunteer Fire Department is trained in water rescue, but they don’t practice it a great deal because the area has the benefit of two search and rescue teams within relative proximity.

“From a search and rescue standpoint we deal with mainly inland waters, but we can do coastal as well. Our first priority with anything to do with water, outdoor enjoyment, is we always try to educate the public first and try to let them know the hazards that exist in our area. Outside of that not everyone listens to the information that’s out there, so we do a combination of ice water rescue, water rescue, inland water rescue, and shore rescue. The first part of water rescue, when we roll up on the scene as search and rescue, if it’s not an animal, it’s a person and the person is responsive, we always try to get them to self-rescue first with vocal guidance.”

Hulan said the vocal guidance means they attempt to help the individual(s) collect themselves, stay calm, and see if they are able to get them to latch on to a rope or reach pole to pull themselves out.

“If that’s not possible our second part is we have an onshore team. The onshore team can do anything from the shoreline, they just can’t go on the water or ice. So they’re the next line of defense. They will vocalize or try to reach with some type of object or throw rope to get the person out. If the person is unconscious or they can’t self-rescue, our last line of defense, and we only use this when we absolutely need to, is our ice water or our water technicians. They’re the people who usually have big yellow or red suits on. They gear up and, in conjunction with the shoreline team, they will set up a scene and enter the water to rescue the animal, the victim, or in some cases, unfortunately, a body. It’s set up so we escalate to the worst-case scenario when need be.”

Hulan said that unlike Search and Rescue, the fire department with water rescue training tends to go into the water first.

“They don’t usually escalate. That’s not so bad when you’re in an urban setting where you’re close to everything. When we have to do a rescue, it’s usually somewhere you’re not close to anything. You’re a ways away from help, and you’re either being heli-vacked out or are going out by ATV or snowmobile, so we usually try to do the most hazardous thing last.”

Hulan said the fire department are really equipped for a rapid rescue, so they are usually the first on the scene, usually only a few minutes after someone has entered the water. Rather than wasting time trying to throw something out to reach the individual, they will swim right into the water, tethered, to retrieve them.

In the event of a rescue, the more people who have the proper training, such as scene evaluation, scene set up, and so forth, the higher the probability that the person or animal will make it out safe and alive.

Search and Rescue, which falls under the RCMP, have to be dispatched by the RCMP, unlike the Fire Department, police, and EMS who are dispatched through 911.

“When the RCMP gets on the scene, if they think that this is well outside of the scope or the breadth of what the fire department is able to handle, then we’ll get dispatched to go out and retrieve this person or animal. The only downside of that is it takes a little longer for us to get dispatched sometimes because the police do show up and do their preliminary scene size up, so usually things are getting pretty bad when we get called out.”

When you fall into the water, especially frigid ice water, there is something called the one-ten-one rule.

“You’ve got the first minute to get your breathing under control. The first instinct your body wants to do in cold water is intake a giant gulp of air. After that happens you’ve got 10 minutes of meaningful movement, 10 minutes where you still have all the dexterity in your hands, you can still kick, paddle, and swim, and then you have one hour before you typically slip into unconsciousness or you become disoriented or confused. So with regards to water rescue in places like Stephenville, Port Aux Basques, and Corner Brook, it’s very beneficial to have the fire departments respond first and fast, because they are going to be your best chance at surviving the situation.”

The most important thing a person can do if they are going anywhere, especially in Newfoundland and Labrador, is to plan the trip.

“Tell people when you’re leaving, what time you plan on being back, the route you’re travelling. Give people as much information as you can and let them know that if you’re not back or don’t make contact by a particular time to dispatch someone like Search and Rescue. Once an incident happens, especially away from town, time starts to work against you.”

Port Aux Basques Mayor Brian Button said the decision to get water rescue training isn’t as simple as the Town mandating the fire department to just go get it.

“We can’t force them into doing those type of things, but from our perspective as a council, we allow our fire department to come to us with the types of training that they require and the types of stuff they want to do. They have an operating budget that is given to them each year from the council, and in that budget they determine what type of stuff they are going to do when it comes to training and their overall operations. It’s a discussion that needs to take place at their level, and if some time they look at it as something that they would do, it’s a presentation that would come to council or if it’s something within their actual budget that warrants them to be able to get the training.”

Button said it’s one thing to get the training, but that it also means getting a fair bit of equipment.

“There’s a bigger overall piece to it. It would be great to have those type of things. It’s whether the volunteer base is willing to do it and if we have the means and it’s within the budget, and if it’s not, it’s something that they need to bring to council to see if council would approve it and recommend them to do it. So I leave that within their own ranks to be able to determine what types of training that they want to do and require to do.”

In response to email inquiries regarding the lack of water rescue training for many fire departments throughout the entire province, the Department of Justice and Public Safety released the following statement.

“It is a local responsibility to pursue water rescue training for fire departments. The town and fire department are encouraged to conduct a risk/hazard assessment in their local area and identify how the fire department will respond to potential incidents in their area. Towns and fire departments may depend on response organizations such as Ground Search and Rescue teams. There are fire departments in the province that have water rescue training, which would have been determined by the town or local fire department. Water rescue response can be in many forms and should follow the NFPA 1006, Technical Rescue Standard. The types are: surface water rescue, swift water rescue, dive rescue, ice rescue, surf rescue, watercraft rescue and floodwater rescue.”

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