Wilmot firefighters looking into water rescue options

Wilmot firefighters looking into water rescue options
By Chris Thomson
New Hamburg Independent
Link to article: Wilmot firefighters looking into water rescue options

After New Hamburg was hit with its worst flood in nearly a decade, Wilmot fire Chief Rod Leeson has been tasked with researching and presenting the best water rescue plan for the township.

“It could take a while, as there are many factors to look into when figuring this out,” said Leeson. “Training time, maintenance of training, commitment from volunteer firefighters, and cost.”

Current bylaws state that the Wilmot fire department can only operate on a shore-based rescue system, meaning they are not allowed to enter any water source while attempting to rescue or recover a person in water. In what the fire department considers a “low frequency, high risk” situation, they will initially attempt to reach out from the shore with “throw bags” and “reach tools” before calling in the Kitchener fire department who are able to provide full water rescue.

During the peak of the recent New Hamburg flood from Feb. 20-21, the fire department only received one water rescue call of a driver trapped in their vehicle on Mill Street. The department’s shore-based rescue was ineffective, but nearby citizens had already rowed out to the vehicle in a canoe and helped the driver out before the Kitchener department arrived.

Wilmot Mayor Les Armstrong says he understands the importance of proper flood response in the high-risk area of New Hamburg and helped initiate council’s decision to request the research report from Leeson after the February flood.

“Considering the impact of climate change, a serious flood can hit our area at any time during the year,” said Armstrong. “I remember way back when firefighters were able to go in there with a life-jacket and rope to get people, but there have been a lot of regulations since then.”

A major concern for Leeson and others across Ontario when it comes to water rescue is the safety of firefighters. The Wilmot fire chief cites two incidents in recent history where firefighters died during water rescue training in southern Ontario, putting many training programs on halt.

“This really is a sensitive issue because our main concern is to not harm firefighters anymore,” said Leeson. “But we do want to provide an option for Wilmot sooner rather than later.

“Council is motivated to provide the best possible option.”

Armstrong says he understands the effort and resources needed to make water rescue a reality, and that to factor in all the possible costs means a plan won’t likely come before next year’s budget finalization.

“I’m hopeful we can be able to provide still-water rescue,” he said.

During his tenure as mayor since 2010, Armstrong can’t recall a discussion on water rescue being put forth, considering the last major flood hit New Hamburg the year before he took office.

Yet he cites the recent search and recovery for New Hamburg man Andreas Pfenning as another reason as water rescue as something that’s required.

On Feb. 26, Pfenning was reported missing after not returning from a hunting trip. His body was recovered by an OPP dive team three days later in the Nith River which he was believed to have entered.

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