Fire Fighting in Canada

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Plunging into Water Rescue

Water/ice rescue tips for starting up a program for your coverage area

December 7, 2007 

18Water and ice – every fire department has them but can you protect your citizens against their dangers? Can you afford to enter this world of specialty rescues or can you afford not to? These are questions most departments, especially smaller, rural departments are asking these days. How can we protect our citizens and maintain a reasonable budget? It is definitely more of a money game today than it used to be. We can't just go out and buy it, or make like in the old days. Liability has all of us moving very cautiously.

Perhaps we should ask the question, "If we don't do it, then who will?" This question brings another issue to light. I have seen paramedics and police agencies in North America picking up on some of the more traditional tasks of the fire department. More recently I have seen a few of these agencies training in areas that are already provided by the fire service. Don't get me wrong, I think this is a great thing, as the more trained responders out there the better, but what about a little job preservation? If we don't do it, someone else will!

So how do we do it? It can be as simple as buying a few throw bags and carabineers per year and outfitting your engine with a couple of PFDs. When entering the world of specialty rescues it does not have to be as complicated and expensive as it is made out to be. Even the larger rescue squads started out with a couple of smaller pieces of equipment, picking up some courses along the way.

Cross utilization of equipment

One factor that may help at budget time is the fact that most fire service equipment can be cross-utilized. You can use 65mm (2-1/2") hoseline as a water/ice reach tool – just add end caps and some air and it works great! Most departments carry rope. You can add a few carabineers, a life ring and a PFD and integrate the use of a simple or vector cinch; now you have a (limited) water/ice rescue squad, except for the necessary training. When it comes time for training it too can be utilized in several aspects, including other specialty areas. But this is not an area to skimp on – make sure the training you provide for your fire fighters adheres to the standards demanded by your provincial authority. Otherwise, that old liability dragon will raise its head and try to burn you.

A quick needs assessment of your jurisdiction should assist you in determining the response requirements for the water exposures in your area. Of course if you are on a lake or have a major river system running through your area it is only a matter of time before these hazards are addressed and I hope it is not through the auspices of a coroner's inquest.


The water/ice protocols are usually "talk-reach-throw-row-go" in that order and if your risk assessment determines that you will not go past throw, then so be it! If this is the case, ensure that your crews are the best at throwing! This holds true for all agencies large or small. If you are a small department that only means that you have 20 less throw-bags than your larger neighbour, not that you are 20 times less effective.

How to start
So, you ask, how should you start? Start small, perform an educated risk assessment of your jurisdiction, investigate your options, consult training companies and through your assessment determine the level of service you will provide.

Start small: Avoid thinking that you require all of the neatest and newest equipment on the market and the need to train to technician level in the first week. It is better to start off with a base level of knowledge and build on it as it helps with retention of skills and knowledge.

Time is also a major issue especially in smaller departments where you may carry the load of responder, inspector and educator. Your days or meetings cannot be consumed with one area of training. Consider the future and send a few fire fighters for technician level training with the intention that they will be your key people and trainers. This will save hundreds, even thousands, of dollars and increase the level of service in your community.

Perform an educated risk assessment: This sounds complicated, like it should be left to a consultant, but it doesn't have to be. Simply look at the water hazards, ponds, streams, swimming pools, lakes, golf courses included, check out past calls, if any, and come up with a plan that deals with the possible hazards while considering your projected level of capability.

Investigate your options: Take some time to look into your options; use the Internet as it is a wealth of free information. Consult other agencies comparable to your own. Use credible sources and training companies to formulate a plan that will train your crew to the level you determine. Most people have e-mail these days so ask the experts, advice is free.

The end result of a simple program like this will exponentially increase the awareness of your fire fighters. If at the end of the day you decide to provide water/ice rescue service to the awareness level, everyone wins! Once you have implemented your program, you will have achieved in implementing a better service for your customers. Fire fighters are loved by all because we take actions like this, we go that extra step to provide these services where they are not offered, we spend our weekends taking courses, yes, because we enjoy it but in the long run it is for those that we serve. If you want to hang the sign out that says "We Are Open For Business" then hopefully these steps will aid you through the process of water/ice rescue.

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