Winnipeg is a good place to fall in the river.
Its fire department boasts five water-rescue vehicles, zodiacs, jet boats, immersion suits and highly trained staff.
In Whitehorse, the fire department carries rope.
It doesn’t have a boat.
And firefighters follow a dry-boots policy, which prohibits them from entering the water.
“We have a very limited capacity,” said Whitehorse fire Chief Clive Sparks.
“It’s not part of our mandate.”
It’s not part of Yukon emergency medical services’ mandate either.
“We have a dry-boots policy,” said director Susan Skaalid on Thursday.
It’s the RCMP’s responsibility to get patients out of the water to the emergency medical service providers on shore, she said.
“We’re not trained like the RCMP in cold- and swift-water rescues.”
But neither, as it turns out, is the Whitehorse 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.
But officers still risk their lives to save people in the water, he said.
“We’ve had members die doing that.”
Something similar started happening in the US a few years back, said Tatshenshini Expediting owner and water-rescue trainer Bob Daffe.
“Police officers, firefighters and ambulance guys kept going out and dying,” he said.
“They were put in positions where they were doing rescues and had no training.”
Soon employers started seeing lawsuits.
“Now, in the US, everybody is getting training,” said Daffe.
“The police department is responsible if they send out people who are untrained and they drown.
“They’re responsible – but they’re not willing to pay.”
To train every officer across Canada would be an exorbitant cost, said Rogers.
“Especially for a perishable skill that needs upkeep.”
But that hasn’t stopped RCMP in Manitoba from taking water- and ice-rescue training.
“We are often in training sessions with police,” said Winnipeg fire training director Norm Daly.
Basic water- and ice-rescue training takes only 16 hours, he said.
In some Manitoba communities police are responsible for water rescue. But in Winnipeg, it’s the fire department that’s mandated by the city to perform these rescues.
It’s the same in Calgary and Edmonton.
Both cities have big, cold bodies of water flowing through them, much like the Yukon River. But both Calgary and Edmonton have fire crews well equipped and well trained in water and ice rescue.
Yellowknife’s fire department also has water- and ice-rescue training.
“It’s really up to your local jurisdiction,” said Daly.
“As far as I know, the RCMP is the first responder in Whitehorse,” said city manager Robert Fendrick, when asked about water rescue.
“We have not been delegated that responsibility,” he said.
“I could anticipate us being on site, but not as a primary responder.”
The Whitehorse fire department can fill a hose with air and send it out on the water, said Sparks.
And it has several rope guns that can shoot line across the river in a rescue attempt. The firefighters are also equipped with life jackets.
“But we have no funding for training or equipment, so we don’t supply (a river-rescue) service,” he said.
RCMP trigger the rescue, and the ambulance crew acts as backup with the fire department, said Skaalid.
“We’ve had some tragedies in the Yukon River – we typically get them every few years – and we are trying to best work in a co-operative manner,” she added.
“We want to get to the scene and sort out who does what, so we don’t compromise the patient.”
But it’s also important not to compromise the ambulance attendants, she said.
“We keep two things in mind: patient safety and paramedic safety.”
That’s why police officers are the only ones expected to get their feet wet.
But the RCMP has a serious handicap when it comes to water rescue, said Daffe.
On-duty officers are not allowed to remove their gun belt, he said.
“Those belts weigh 25 pounds.
“It’s like doing a rescue on water with rocks in your pockets.
“At some point there is going to be a lawsuit,” he added.
“Someone will die on the job, or get hurt and start a legal suit.”
Daffe, who offers internationally recognized water- and ice-rescue courses in the Yukon, has already taught five of the three-day courses this year. And he has two more booked.
He also taught a one-day course to a group of ambulance attendants who took the training on their own dime.
“The staff took the training on their own initiative to raise awareness,” said Skaalid.
“We have a generous bunch of people out there who want to help people.”
But even with their new training, the emergency medical crew is bound by policy and has to remain on shore until police retrieve victim(s) from the water.
“And some of those guys were really good swimmers,” said Daffe.
The RCMP has such a regular turnover, so they don’t want to waste money on training, he added.
“So the easiest thing would be to train the ambulance crew and the firefighters – these are local guys who know the river – who are ready and quick to respond.
“But then, why would the city or Yukon government pay for training when it’s the RCMP’s job?
“There are all these budget battles and in the end nobody has any training.”
The RCMP has a boat, said Cpl. Rick Aird on Wednesday.
“It’s in the parking lot.”
Only RCMP who’ve taken the boat course can operate it, he added.
“It takes a while to deploy a boat,” said Daffe.
“And having a boat doesn’t mean you have any training.”
In Winnipeg, Daly keeps his jet boats and his fire cruiser in the water all summer. There are also three portable boats that are carried on his river-rescue vehicles, ready for launch.
And Daly’s crew is constantly upgrading its skills. “We’re out on the boats every couple of days,” he said. “And in the winter we train in the pool.”
Daffe trains plenty of industry professionals in the territory, including staff from engineering firms, Department of Fisheries and Oceans officials and Yukon conservation officers.
“We do train quite a few professionals that work in the water all the time,” he said.
“It just seems a bit bizarre that the ones that are supposed to do the rescues are not trained.”
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