In October 2003, four people died when the Rutherford Creek Bridge collapsed and two cars plunged into the river. A third car and a fifth victim were discovered a year later.
Accidents involving cars crashing into waterways happen frequently in B.C., its mountainous geography often dictates that roads and highways be built near fast-flowing rivers — rivers that can flood when hit with torrential rainfall.
“In certain areas like the Sea to Sky Highway, up to 50 per cent swiftwater call outs involve vehicles in water,” said Walter Bucher, Executive Director of Raven Rescue. “There has never really been a specific training course for vehicles in water for swiftwater rescue technicians (in Canada).”
Last Wednesday (Sept. 26) members of Pemberton Search and Rescue (SAR), Squamish SAR and the Squamish Fire Department were trained in how to safely perform a rescue for people trapped in submerged vehicles. The course, originally developed in the UK, was taught by instructors from Smithers-based Raven Rescue and had personnel travelling from as far away as Edmonton to attend. Participants were taught about basic hydrology (how water flows around the vehicle), how to stabilize the vehicle so it can be approached safely and how to identify hazard areas.
While there has been strong interest recently from SAR groups and fire departments to take this course, finding a suitable venue proved difficult for the staff at Raven Rescue.
“Getting a vehicle into water and back out again safely is a bit of a challenge,” said Bucher.
A suggestion came from Pemberton SAR member and swiftwater rescue instructor Paul Carus to use the Rutherford Kayak Park, which after being built in 2004 has seen little use by the paddling community due to several design flaws making the facility unfit for all but advanced users. For the purpose of this course however, the kayak park could not be a more perfect fit. Innergex, which owns and run the nearby power plant, were more than happy to cooperate. Being able to regulate the flow of water into the park meant that in the case of a mishap, the water could quickly be turned off to make safe the rescuers-in-training.
A vehicle donated by Sea to Sky Ford with its engine removed and cleaned of any fluid contaminants was lowered into the dry river bed and anchored in place before the flood gates were opened. The teams could then work in a realistic situation of moving water with the confidence that they were not risking their own safety.
“One of the reasons rescuers get into trouble is that they don't have what we call size up skills,” said Bucher. “One of the critical skills you need in order to be successful in any kind of a rescue situation is to be able to size up a situation, identify where the hazard is and then do a risk versus benefit analysis to ask yourself 'is it worth taking a risk to do this?'”
This course now has a venue that alleviates much of that risk. The unique infrastructure at the Rutherford site can now be utilized regularly to help SAR groups and rescue personnel be better equipped for extricating victims from vehicles in water.
“The more understanding we have of how a vehicle reacts in the water and how to best approach it, better protects the safety and well-being of our first responders,” said Carus, who will now be running the vehicle-specific swiftwater rescue courses from Pemberton.
“I anticipate a national interest in this, I think we'll be bringing rescue personnel and first responders from all over Canada.”