Chief Wayne Benson with the South Pigeon Lake fire department is a man with a mission. On Aug. 15, 2020 he organized a day to help elevate emergency services coordination in Wetaskiwin County, with a focus on water rescues and recoveries.
The morning of Aug.15, members of the Wetaskiwin RCMP, Fish and Wildlife, South Pigeon Lake fire department, Mulhurst fire department, Central Alberta Rescue Diving Society, and the Search and Rescue Dog Association of Alberta gathered to work out protocol and scenarios for water rescues and recoveries.
South Pigeon Lake (SPL) fire department recently purchased a new form of underwater sonar technology called the AquaEye created by Vancouver company VodaSafe.
This training day follows a summer of increased drownings and water accidents across Alberta, and more recently the water fatalities that occurred at Pigeon Lake Aug.7, 2020.
The Aqua Eye
The hand-held scanning sonar device obtained by SPL is one of the first 150 to ever be sold. The AquaEye’s designed to allow rescuers to quickly access a scene and identify potential victims within seconds of entering the water by using ultrasound and artificial intelligence technologies to identify human bodies underwater.
When held just under the surface, AquaEye will scan from the surface to five meters below it. It can also be take down to a depth of five meters.
Chief Benson organized the training day to test the AquaEye’s ability in Alberta Lakes and create an open line of communication between emergency services to improve coordination for water emergencies.
As the RCMP are always in command should there be an emergency water situation involving a rescue or recovery, Benson hopes that the training on Aug.15 will help Wetaskiwin County RCMP to know what resources are available to them for aid.
Const. Matthew Slipp with the Wetaskiwin RCMP says that when a water incident occurs it can take upwards of 45 minutes for the Wetaskiwin RMCP to get a boat hooked up and in the water. For this reason, they call out SPL fire department right away, as they have immediate access to the lake with a water craft to begin working on the situation at hand.
Const. Slipp acknowledges the RCMP’s appreciation for this coordination and help.
To test out the AquaEye’s abilities members from emergency services and enforcement services rendezvoused at Sunset Harbour, Pigeon Lake. Scenarios were made up which each department then acted on, coordinating whose duty was what—protocol that will likely be followed in the event of an actual emergency.
A rescue dummy was dropped in the marina by the Central Alberta Rescue Diving Society, to test if the Aqua Eye would pick up on it. They also deployed a diver to sit at the bottom in another location and test if the sonar would pick up on them.
From that information relayed, the team on shore with the AquaEye would relay the information to the RCMP boat and notify the rescue divers about the location they needed to search in.
Central Alberta Rescue Dive Society
The Central Alberta Rescue Dive Society (CARDS) is a non-profit, volunteer organization that get called out for rescue dives, as well as body and evidence recovery.
Millet firefighter and resident Luke Jevne joined CARDS a year and a half ago. His neighbour at his lake lot in Lac La Biche, Bob Jonson, another member of CARDS got him involved with the Society.
Alberta is the only province in Canada besides P.E.I to not have an official RCMP dive team, and that’s where CARDS come in.
This year CARDS signed their first official contract with the RCMP as the “to go” dive team for all of their recovery needs. These recoveries include, but are not limited to, recovery of bodies from Alberta waterways, recover evidence thrown in the water that will be used for a criminal case, and to help keep Alberta waterways free of contamination such as gasoline and oil by recovering vehicles and vessels lost in lakes or rivers.
Certified as public safety divers, this team of volunteers have paid out of their own pockets for everything they need in order to do these dives—from their certifications to all their own diving gear and equipment.
They rely on donations to help with costs but on average each diver will invest close to $12,000 of their own money to help and serve. Not only do these divers cover Wetaskiwin County, but a massive area across Central Alberta stretching from Highway 3 to the Northwest Territories border.
“We see the need, and we are here to help in anyway that we can,” says Jevne.
In addition to their diving certifications and equipment, CARDS members also pay out of their own pockets for their required on-going training.
In the past month CARDS have been to Morinville for an evidence recovery dive and were called out to Kananaskis Country where they did a recovery for a 16-year-old male who went missing while swimming near Seebee Dam.
The team has traveled all across Central Alberta to do their dives and help the RCMP in rescues and recoveries. From Slave Lake to Fort McMurray, Okotoks, Lake Louise, Wizard Lake, Buffalo Lake, Sylvan Lake and further, the team assembles it’s divers at little notice and drives with their equipment out to the location they are needed.
The divers usually work in severely limited visibility under the water. “Everything is by feel, everything is cold, everything is dark,” says Jevne.
They also require heavy-duty dry-suits for their dives, not only to keep warm in freezing water temperatures, but for hazmat reasons.
Jonson says, “Getting a body is the most contaminated water you can possibly dive in.”
Both Jonson and Jevne say that despite the personal risks they find the work important and rewarding, similar to their work with their own fire departments.
“It absolutely is not fun,” says Jevne. “But you know, there is somebody’s loved one that is missing, and they need to come home.”
CARDS participation in the training day was crucial for the understanding of the use of the AquaEye and how to best coordinate emergency services to tackle a situation in the most efficient manner.
On the water
On the water CARDS organizes Jonson and Jevne to go in the water. Fish and Wildlife officers circle on their boat, ensuring that no incoming boats will come in and run over the divers while members of the SPL fire department stand by on the department’s SeaDoo, waiting for incoming instructions after they completed their initial scan of the water area.
Representative and engineer for VodaSafe, Declan Johnson, climbs aboard the RCMP’s boat to use the AquaEye from the water after testing the sonar from shore.
Out of the Marina, the divers are in the water and those participating in the training day wait for the sonar’s results.
In the end, the AquaEye is impaired by the thick layer of algae across and in the water, as is the sonar used on the CARDS’ boat. Despite the water conditions hindering the AquaEye’s ability, those participating rule the day as a success.
Const. Slipp says that the day was enlightening to know what resources the RCMP have available to them, and that when the time comes, the multiple departments will know how to effectively coordinate with each other for a water rescue or recovery.
Wetaskiwin RCMP and CARDS plan on participating in bi-annual training sessions similar to those done on Aug.15 with SPL fire and Mulhurst fire department, one in the summer months and one in winter for ice rescues.
SPL fire department also plans to continue their work with VodaSafe to help the company work out ways to navigate issues that Alberta waterways face, such as algae and ice, better for their updated AquaEye designs.
For more information on how you can support the Central Alberta Rescue Diving Society you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.