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Fire department frozen out of ice rescue

On Monday, Warren Zakus fell into an open lead in the Yukon River. The current swept the Whitehorse firefighter downstream until he could grab a slippery lip of ice.

On Monday, Warren Zakus fell into an open lead in the Yukon River.

The current swept the Whitehorse firefighter downstream until he could grab a slippery lip of ice.

Zakus was braving the frigid water and biting wind to learn about ice rescue in a two-day course alongside environmental engineers and Parks Canada employees.

But unlike his classmates, Zakus isn’t allowed to use his newfound skills on the job.

The Whitehorse fire department has a dry-boots policy.

That means firefighters, even if they’re trained in water and ice rescue, must stay on shore.

In the Yukon, it’s the RCMP’s mandate to provide water and ice rescue, said Zakus.

And that’s unusual.

In most cities across the country, including Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, Ottawa and Yellowknife, the fire department is responsible for water and ice rescue.

“It’s a natural fit,” said Yellowknife deputy fire chief Craig MacLean.

“Firefighters were always historically trained in rescue, while the RCMP is more law enforcement and dealing with the criminal code,” he said.

“So to also be specialized in rescue doesn’t seem as much of a fit for the RCMP.”

In Whitehorse, the RCMP doesn’t require its officers to have water and ice rescue training, even though it’s mandated to provide it.

RCMP officers are required to achieve a certain level of swimming, but don’t need to take water rescue courses when they go through training, said RCMP Sgt. Don Rogers in a previous interview with the News.

To train every officer across Canada would be an exorbitant cost, said Rogers.

“Especially for a perishable skill that needs upkeep.”

There were no RCMP officers in the ice rescue course this week.

In the Yukon, “the RCMP is paid and mandated to do these rescues,” said course instructor Jim Lavalley.

But it would be better suited to the fire department, he said.

Police are on the road, dealing with crime, while the fire department is sitting in a building with all its equipment ready to go, said Lavalley.

“They just need some funding.”

The RCMP is getting $21 million from the Department of Justice to provide policing services in the territory this year.

The Department of Justice couldn’t say how much of that money was earmarked for water and ice rescue training and equipment.

The Whitehorse fire department “would be interested in looking at taking over water rescue if the government provided the funding to go with it,” said Chief Clive Sparks.

Out on the ice under the Riverdale bridge, Zakus set ice screws and helped stretch lines across an open lead to prepare for an under-the-ice rescue.

There was a windchill of minus 39, and the instructor’s wet neoprene gloves grew long icicles from each finger.

Splashing into the open water proved warmer than the air until the students had to climb back out.

Almost instantly, the dry suits froze into ice armour.

Although there’s no funding, and it’s not the fire department’s job, Zakus still hopes to use his new rescue skills.

“You feel helpless standing on the shore not being able to help people,” he said.

“We would like to be able to assist to a greater capacity.”

Zakus plans to train the rest of the Whitehorse firefighters in ice rescue now that he’s spent some time in the water.

“We are slowly purchasing equipment and doing training in-house as time and money allows,” he said.

Ice rescue is “something we can do without increasing our budget,” added Sparks.

But it’s not in the fire department’s mandate to do water or ice rescue.

So why do ice rescue and not water rescue?

“I won’t comment on that,” said Sparks.

“It’s political,” said Zakus.

“We’re having preliminary, internal discussions” about ice rescue, said Sparks.

The fire department already has confined-space rescue training and can do technical rope rescues, he said.

And it already has life jackets.

So adding ice rescue to the mix makes sense, said Sparks.

“I just have to get permission from the city and mandate my staff to do it.”

MacLean has been with the Yellowknife fire department for 11 years, and water and ice rescue have always been part of the job.

“Fire departments specialize in rescue,” he said.

Justice spokesman Dan Cable could not explain why the RCMP was tasked with water and ice rescue in the Yukon, instead of the fire department.

Neither could the RCMP.

In fact, RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Dwayne Latham wasn’t sure what kind of water and ice rescue training the RCMP receive.

That would take some looking into, he said.

Latham himself doesn’t have training in either water or ice rescue.

“It’s not my purview,” he said.

On Tuesday afternoon, as the wind froze wet faces and numbed fingers, Zakus and his classmates threw themselves into their rescue scenarios with gusto.

Zakus didn’t need to be there.

But as a firefighter, he’s trained to save lives.

So Zakus and the Whitehorse fire department are going above and beyond the call of duty to do so.

“That’s the difference between moral obligation and duty,” said Lavalley.

“The RCMP are mandated, paid and contracted to do (water and ice) rescues,” he said.

“It’s their duty.”

The fire department doesn’t have the money to train and equip themselves, said Lavalley.

“But when someone needs help, they’re ready to go.”

Contact Genesee Keevil at