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Essex Fire & Rescue team certified in water, ice rescue


by Sylene Argent

Over the past four years, Essex Fire & Rescue has worked on assembling an ice and water rescue team. Now, ten of its firefighters are trained to act as technicians in ice and open water rescue, and are now working towards being able to respond to swift water calls.

  Around two-years ago, Essex Council directed Essex Fire & Rescue to start water training. Last year, Fire Chief Rick Arnel said, the local firefighting service selected a team of firefighters to learn this new skill, and began the training processes.

  Through this journey, Essex Fire & Rescue had Deputy Fire Chief Rick Malott and Assistant Deputy Fire Chief Jason Pillon obtained their trainer facilitators certifications by participating in an instructor training course last summer. They then ensured the team met the standards, Arnel noted.

  Malott said discussions on this training stemmed back to around four-years ago when Essex Fire & Rescue was explaining to Essex Council its level of service, and described its capabilities and responsibilities in respect to ice and water rescue, which are uniquely different.

  “We got clearer direction last year from Council to go ahead with something we kind of already proactively been working towards,” Malott said.

  Prior to the assembly of this ten-person team, the Town’s water rescue came from neighbouring municipalities, Malott explained. With an increase in water-related rescue calls over the years, the need was identified for more advanced levels of this training within Essex Fire & Rescue.

  The water and ice training team, Malott said, was assembled with a multi-step approach. The individuals selected to serve were chosen based on interest, availability, and previous water-related experience or certifications.  

  At this point, everyone on the ten-person team is now certified in open water and ice rescue, and will work towards getting their swift certification this summer, depending on COVID-19 restrictions.  

  There are three different certifications when it comes to water-related rescues, Malott noted. An open water rescue includes response in ponds and ditches, where the water is not moving. As soon as the water is moving at one knot or more, it is considered a swift water rescue. One knot, Malott said, is identified as a really slow walking speed. The third type is an ice rescue.

  Three levels of response the are broken down to include awareness, operations, and technicians. “Our role and responsibility previously was awareness only,” Malott said of water-rescue calls. Noting, Essex Fire & Rescue would call neighbouring partners to provide the operation and technician aspects for the rescue.

  When Essex Fire & Rescue started to assemble this team four-years ago, the goal was to have this crew assist the technicians at the operation level. Last year, with that clearer direction from Council, they began to move into the technician level.

  The ten members on the water and ice rescue team have put in over thirty hours of training specifically to this program so they can obtain the knowledge, training, and skills required to enter the water, use the rescue water craft, and make the rescue.

  Currently, all 60 members of Essex Fire & Rescue are trained at the awareness level when it comes to water rescue and are further trained in assisting at the operations level, Malott said. This training is taking place on an annual basis.

  All members of Essex Fire & Rescue can conduct three of the five key components of a successful water rescue. This includes talking to the person in distress, or perhaps trying to coax them out of the water. If that doesn’t work, they can reach to them with a pole or ladder, then a throw rope. 

Failing that, members of the water rescue team will row the rescue craft out. The riskiest step is accessing the water if they can’t be approached from the water-rescue craft, Malott noted.

  The ten members of the water and ice rescue team are now at the technician level. Members of the team include Malott, Pillon, and members split between the three local fire stations. This ensures equal emergency response. Those technicians are working to require their own PPE to make water-entry; including dry suits, life jackets, and necessary ropes. With that, he added, comes the training and certification in using all of that equipment.

  Last year, Essex Fire & Rescue acquired a water-rescue craft, which is an inflatable boat that does not have a motor, but allows rescuers to deploy into shallow or deep waters. It is connected to rope tethered back to the shore, and allows the team to maneuver in ponds, streams, or lakes to access vehicles, people, or obstructions, and work from the craft.

  Malott said getting the ten-person team trained was truly a group effort. The support from Chief Arnel and Council is what, “Really got us to where we are. Firefighters are anxious and excited to always do something to help, especially when it is new. They did a lot of work, they did a lot of homework, pre-course material studying, but they really enjoyed it,” Malott said.

  The team also participates in ongoing maintenance training. “We’re constantly refreshing the skills we have already learned and adding new ones as we go,” Malott said.

  “The power, the true, raw power of water, and especially moving water, is totally and so often underestimated, not only by the public, but by rescuers. It is something you have to maintain training in to understand and respect that level of power,” Malott said.  

When people think of water in Essex, they think of the several kilometres of shoreline along Lake Erie at the southern-end of the municipality. There are, however, several kilometres of offshore water.

“Realistically, our largest risk is our inland water, our ditches, our ponds, our canals, our creaks within the inland portion of the Municipality of Essex,” Malott said, explaining Lake Erie is  heavily patrolled because there are the Colchester Guardian, the Amherstburg Cost Guard Base, the OPP Marine Unit, and the Ministry of Fisheries and Oceans.    

  “When we talk about a pond in somebody’s backyard, that ditch along the 12th Concession, or we talk about Cedar Creek, the Canadian Cost Guard does not have jurisdiction, and the OPP Marine Unit is not responding there. It is on us. That Kayaker that’s in Cedar Creek and tips it over, it is Essex Fire & Rescue that has the water rescue capabilities.”

  He said Essex Fire & Rescue works closely with the Colchester Guardian, the OPP Marine Unit, the Windsor Marine Unit, and many other rescue vessels as well. If there is an offshore rescue that’s required on Lake Erie, Essex Fire & Rescue works to assist and help coordinate that rescue from land, while the other agencies head out to conduct the rescue.   

  When conducting a water-rescue, Essex Fire & Rescue has to work with other agencies to coordinate resources, such as coordinating Captains, working with towing companies, police officers, and EMS personnel.

  Overall, the team would respond to an average of five to seven inland and Lake Erie calls per year, Malott noted.

  Malott commented this would not be possible without the support from Chief Arnel and Council.

© 2020 The Essex Free Press ltd.

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