Who takes the plunge?
City asked to rethink position on underwater rescue

Dane Gibson
Northern News Services

NNSL (Feb 26/99) - City councillor Dave Ramsay helplessly watched a Yellowknife Correctional Centre inmate drown on Long Lake last summer, as did fire department members and swimmers on the shore.

The death prompted an official inquest in which a Yellowknife jury made the final ruling on NWT Chief Coroner Percy Kinney's findings.

They recommended the city of Yellowknife provide the fire department with dive capability immediately.

"(Underwater rescue) was a budget item that came up for debate in December and I was the only councillor that voted in favour," Ramsay said.

"I believe had the fire department been properly equipped on that day last summer, then perhaps that young man's life could have been saved."

Ramsay said everyone on council had a copy of the coroner's report when the decision was made to drop the $25,000 budget item. At the time, jurisdictional arguments were raised. It was suggested underwater rescue was RCMP territory.

"The first line of action should be the fire department," Ramsay, who was a park officer at the time of the drowning, said.

"The RCMP are well equipped but by the time they get a call, mobilize a specially-trained officer and the necessary equipment, it becomes body recovery."

Kinney agrees with Ramsay that the jurisdictional argument is weak. He suggests the only logical candidate for underwater rescue, which is currently a "glaring hole in the system," is the fire department.

"I can rattle off the top of my head a half-dozen examples of where having dive rescue capabilities may have made a difference," Kinney said.

"The logic is we have 20 minutes to get somebody who is underwater out alive -- we can take 10 hours to get a body out dead."

He said with the coming spring thaw, there will be cases of people falling through the ice. Increased tourist activity in the summer also worries him.

"As chief coroner, I'm deeply concerned that we live in a city surrounded by six lakes and there's no clear indication who will respond (to an underwater rescue call)," Kinney said.

"My question to city hall is if not you then who, and if not now then when? The reality is we can respond to this problem, so let's do it."

Deputy fire Chief Mike Lowing said they already handle surface water and ice rescue, adding it was the fire department that prepared the $25,000 budget proposal brought before council in December.

The money was slated for two sets of diving gear and training.

"It's our belief underwater rescue is an extension of what we already do," Lowing said.

"Right now, we're confined to the surface."

He said because the lake water here is so cold, chances of rescuing someone who is under ice or water increases.

"There's scientific and medical evidence that the cold water increases our chances to recover somebody alive," Lowing said.

"In many of the drowning situations we've responded to, the victims were relatively close to shore and in water that wasn't extremely deep.

"They were out of reach of surface rescuers but well within the reach of underwater rescue."

Yellowknife Mayor Dave Lovell said it's still too early to know what direction the city will take on the issue.

"When you get into underwater rescue a whole new set of training is involved," Lovell said.

"That's a big step and we really want to think it out. I'm not against it, it's just that if we do take it on, we want to be sure we do it right."