A dozen firefighters from the Township of Potton in Estrie attended ice rescue training last Saturday. They jumped into the water of Lake Massawippi braving extreme cold of -33 degrees Celsius.
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This troop of firefighters is trained for interventions on ice and in cold water for an entire weekend. TVA Nouvelles took part in one of these training sessions given by the Sauvetage nautique team.
In the small fire station in North Hatley, located 20 kilometers south of Sherbrooke, these firefighters learn how to use the Ice Commander. It is this yellow or red coat that allows them to go in the water and on the ice without feeling the striking cold too much.
It’s not that easy to use. This suit is waterproof with built-in gloves and attached boots. The velcro must be properly closed and the seam must align with a specific part of the equipment at the time of assembly.
“We fight for seconds. If the suit is badly fitted, badly positioned or badly placed, we have just increased our response time. But the victim cannot wait”, specifies Sylvain Jalbert, instructor for Nautical Rescue.
Firefighters have to help each other to get dressed. If a gap is detected in the assembly, the firefighter must start over. Air and water cannot infiltrate. A small mistake could jeopardize their safety and the rescue.
Even though they are used to danger, they all have a little nervousness before jumping into the water. The extreme cold of the day plays in their head. You can hear their every step cracking on the ice of the lake.
Once everyone is in the water, which is barely 4 degrees Celsius, they enjoy swimming with amazement. It’s colder outside. The fear of facing cold water is now far behind. “It’s like being in a spa,” said Paul Stogowski, firefighter for the Township of Potton.
“We practice in the extremes, precisely to be good in the extremes,” adds Alex Béchard, firefighter at the barracks in the Township of Potton. The ice is broken, and these temporary firefighters, young and old, are fully participating in this training.
Among the candidates, we find the mayor of the Township of Potton, Bruno Côté. He is also a part-time firefighter in this small municipality of 1883 inhabitants. “It is certain that the first re-entry into the water is an experience in itself. But it went really well and we continue training.
This troop and the trainers are not alone. There are local residents who come to the small bridge to observe them. Well dressed with tuque, scarf and gloves, they are amazed to see the courage of the group facing this temperature.
“We are lucky to have people like that,” said a resident of North Hatley. Another passer-by adds: “They are brave. They’re doing this to save us.” The firefighters are also applauded by impressed tourists.
The Water Rescue team crisscrosses Quebec to provide training to firefighters and police officers in the province. The president and master instructor is Sylvain Gariépy. He retired after 30 years with the fire safety service of the city of Laval.
“The small municipality’s firefighters will have various techniques in their toolbox that will allow them to intervene to rescue a person on the edge of the ice,” explains Sylvain Jalbert, the instructor for the day. He is also a full-time firefighter for the city of Laval.
In Quebec, an average of 7 people per year drown in winter according to the Quebec Lifesaving Society. You must avoid being on the ice if it is less than 3 inches thick.
“From the moment a person falls into the water, there is not that long. You have one minute to catch your breath and 10 minutes of motor dexterity. If you don’t have a life jacket, after 10 minutes, it’s over for you”, specifies Sylvain Jalbert.
Firefighters who have taken this training leave with the feeling of having learned and they are ready to face this type of emergency call. “I know that I will finish my weekend and that we will be competent if we have a call tomorrow morning and that everything will be fine,” said Alexandra Ducharme, firefighter.