Fire Fighting in Canada

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Water rescue: Preparing your department for summer danger

It’s time for your department to gear up

June 10, 2024 
By Dave Gillespie


Photo: David Gillespie

Whether it’s a car in a creek, a person overboard, or a person in a pool, these are calls of extreme urgency. Six minutes underwater and brain death occurs. It’s a high-risk but low-frequency situation. And it will hit your area again this year.

The Drowning Prevention Research Centre reports that Canada averages over 400 fatal drownings per year. The calculation for non-fatal drownings (recently revised term from the old term near-drownings) is 4:1. That means for every one person drowning, there are four non-fatal drownings that require emergency department visits. Time to ensure you are ready.

Do we have the equipment?
With climate change, early spring runoffs and more civilian activity all four seasons of the year, dry suits had become the norm for water rescue PPE in Canada. Beyond the standard one-size-fits-all ice rescue suit, dry suit manufacturers have been producing specific rescue designs for rescue swimmers. Prices range from $900 to $1300. They have quickly become the norm for agencies responding to water rescue calls in spring, summer and autumn. Unlike ice rescue suits, available in one size only, three-season dry suits come in small to extra-large. Some come with special liner, but most responders wear it over their station uniform.

Some chiefs may see multiple sizes as expensive, but not all firefighters fit in one size suit. The jury of the 2017 Kendall-Brunt coroner’s inquest into two drownings of firefighters in two separate training exercises heard the importance of appropriately sized PPE. Make sure your rescue team have access to PPE that fits their size. A dry suit must fit the rescuer, and therefore some agencies are setting up three to four simple PPE kit bags with a range in sizes and matching footwear sizes.

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These suits require independent footwear, such as neoprene boots, Haix water rescue boots, or specialized OTB (over the beach) boots. Prepared fire services have added multiple sets, such as including foot sizes eight to 13.

Removeable gloves are best for cold water temperatures, or working on watercraft, shorelines or hazards. These come in different thicknesses, from 2 mm to the heavier 3 mm, that still allow dexterity to handle ropes, carabiners and handling patients.

There is a range of helmets used in water rescue. Popular helmets on the market include the ProTec, NRS Havoc, WRSI Current or the Pacifica R6V Mk2. 

Standard recreational personal flotation devices (PFDs) are rated for only one person to be supported at surface.  Transport Canada and the Canadian General Standards Board has set the minimum buoyancy at 15.5 lbs of buoyancy. That is based on 150N (150newtons = 33.7lbs of force) — CAN/CGSB-65.18-M86. Canada does not have a standard specific to professional rescue swimmers, unlike the USA that has a standard for Type IV PFDs. Therefore, manufacturers who sell to Canadian fire departments must certify through Transport Canada’s recreational standard CAN/CGSB-65.18-M86. With feedback from professional rescue swimmers, there is a need to support one rescuer plus one patient. Therefore, manufacturers have developed “rescue PFDs” with increased buoyancy and quick release tethers. This is far more appropriate for rescuer plus victim, aided by a tether line for retrieving the rescuer.

Do we have the training?
Was the water rescue training once per year with 60 per cent of the crew, or two to three times per year with 90 per cent attendance and completion of JPRs? It will set up to be a good call when we can rely on how the crew responds and see them each as skilled and competent. When our hopes are pinned on one specific person showing up because they are the only competent rescuer, our training program is not adequate.

Do you recognize water rescue terms such as point-last-seen, eddies, laminar flow, search grids, offensive swim, live bait rescue, rescue PFD, quick release tether, standing waves, and hydraulics?  If you scored 10 out of 10 then you have water rescue training. If you score three or less, it is time to up your game.

With many jurisdictions committing to do Surface Operations and Swiftwater Operations to NFPA 1670, or other provincial standards, some agencies in Canada are writing their own curriculum and or using third-party agencies or standards. Jones and Bartlett Learning is the current textbook on all water rescue.

Other resources include the International Association of Water Rescue Professionals (www.iawrp.com) which holds an annual conference in South Bend Indiana and California.  YouTube has a variety of water rescue videos, but selecting credible sources is key.

Canadian statistics show that 65 per cent of non-fatal drownings take place in June, July, and August. We need to be prepared.

Who is in my response area?
With Canadian immigration, our population demographics are changing and so is our rescue profile. No longer are we just mainly rescuing people who grew up with cottages, canoeing, or swim lessons. Many new Canadians come from cultures where swimming was not a recreational opportunity, swim lessons were not the norm, and possibly neither was clean water. Considering how water is a magnet for all cultures and ages, we have a duty to put up signage that includes infographics and notes dangers of unsupervised beaches, steep banks, or beaches with undertows in the different languages of people who frequent the area.

If you are the old kid on the block, you know local rivers and lakes by the local nickname, cross-street and the neighbour’s house. But does that match the latest computer aided dispatch (CAD) name assigned by GPS technology?

Since 911 dispatchers are covering a larger area, when someone calls 911 and refers to their famous favourite swimming hole, or a visitor only sees a sign with no address, the dispatcher scrambles to roll a rescue team to possible save their family. Can we promote better signage by municipalities and conservation areas on local water spots? Can you check your CAD maps also have the local names matched in the CAD search engine? These trouble-shooting moves are simple to execute.

Many local fire departments are shifting to regional and provincial dispatch centres. The use of CAD requires attaching local names and matching local signage, which all enables faster recognition of the caller’s location. This leads to a more efficient response of the nearest water rescue team.

Have you completed pre-plans and training in your water rescue areas of highest probability? Your team knows it. Your team talks about it every call that happens there.

Has your service promoted the use of geo-locating phone apps like the popular What3Words?  We can even add the specific 3 words onto safety signage at the exact swimming spot for non-locals who call the 911 centre.

Now is the time to set up hands-on training in that high-frequency area and perform a spinal accident at a backyard pool, rescue simulations in the local pond or quarry, and search patterns at the local jumping cliff.

A simple one is to set up a dry simulation for that curve on roadway where cars have flipped into the creek.

Swimming, boating and peak water rescue season is here. Be sure your department is geared up and has the training to execute the best possible response.


Dave Gillespie is a 29-year firefighter, swiftwater and ice rescue instructor, and chief training officer for Peterborough, Ont. He developed his water rescue skills as a consultant for fire services, municipalities, film companies, and as an author, and speaker at FDIC.  He can be reached at david.gillespie.fire@gmail.com.


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