Skip to content

Into the frigid depths for firefighters (7 photos)

Water rescue squad wait for the coldest days to practice ice maneuvers

You can’t practice falling through the ice when it’s warm outside. You can’t use picks to pull yourself from sub-zero water when a breeze blows summer winds through your hair.

Unfortunately for members of Thorold’s water rescue unit, ice rescues can only be performed on days when all you want to do is climb inside several layers of clothing and cover your face in fleece.

It isn’t easy being a member of this team.

Taking advantage of low temperatures and a wind chill reaching -17 Celsius, the 14 members of Thorold’s water rescue unit hammered through a frozen pond on Turner Road Saturday to create a practice area for their ice rescue training.

Donning baggy yellow dry suits, firefighters put themselves through a number of exercises in preparation for a day when they might be asked to rescue someone from icy waters for real.

In fact, this same squad, made up of volunteer and full-time firefighters were responsible for the rescue of Michael LeBlanc, who was pulled from the Welland Canal near Lock 7 in January after diving in to save his dog.

The Welland man remains in a coma, but wouldn’t be alive today without the efforts of Thorold’s water rescue team and their commitment to training for situations like LeBlanc’s.

According to a grateful Captain of Training Mike Pittaway, the team and the city owe a large amount of gratitude to Turner Road resident Tom Astley who allows the firefighters to use his large farm pond for training sessions throughout the year. In addition, he lets the city to use his pond to fill its water trucks if it has to respond to a fire in the rural area of Thorold.

“Just a terrific guy,” says Pittaway.

In addition to days like this on the water, or the ice, Thorold firefighter and technical resource lead Mark Todorov told ThoroldNews team members spend at least part of their time in the classroom studying areas such as hypothermia, types of ice, the physiology of drowning and learning how to evaluate various scenarios the team is likely to face in the line of duty.

Members must all pass a rigorous swimming test with failure leading to the member’s suspension from the water rescue unit.

Team members belong to either Station #1 or Station #2 (downtown and Thorold South).

Pittaway said water rescues are one of the most dangerous kinds of rescue situations faced by firefighters, noting three firefighters have died in training exercises in North America over the past few years. While fire training is typically carried out in controlled environments, water rescue training takes place where firefighters can find it.

Just like in a real emergency, Pittaway said, firefighters can’t be absolutely certain what ice is going to do or how fast the water below is moving.

“It’s unpredictable, but that’s why we train,” he said.