Scarborough firefighters are living on the edge

“9-1-1 dispatcher, what is your emergency?”

People wandering too close to the edge of the cliffs is an ongoing issue that tends to happen in spring and summer, says Gary Crawford, councilor for ward 36. Although the city has put both signs and fences up to keep people away from the eroding cliffs, there are always those who take the risk.

“This is something that has been going on for generations,” Crawford says.

This is something that has been going on for generations.

— Gary Crawford

The Toronto Fire department has a unit that trains for weeks at the Toronto Fire Services’ Special Operations Training Centre to perform rescues of people who fall over the cliffs. The officers have to do extensive training in rapelling and victim recovery.

“It takes a couple of weeks to get somebody proficient in it, and then the crew and the truck will continually go through year-round training,” says Stephan Powell, district chief of public information for Toronto Fire.

When it is reported that someone is stuck on the Scarborough Bluffs, the fire department sends out their rescue truck. This is different than the pumper trucks, which firefighters use to put out fires. The rescue truck has all the necessary equipment to perform a rope rescue.

Scarborough Bluffs facts and figures

12: Roughly, the number of rescues that the department performs each year.

14: The number of kilometres the cliff runs along the Lake Ontario shoreline.

65: The number of metres above the water the Bluffs reaches at the highest point.

70,000: The approximate age of the Bluffs. It was formed by the gradual erosion of a glacier.

A normal response unit generally includes about 12 officers, however, depending on the circumstances, they may not send all 12. Once they have arrived at the scene, there are some specific steps that the officers follow to make sure they are performing the rescue safely. They are as follows:

Assessment. This includes locating the victim and figuring out the best route of attack. “It may not be down the same path as the person fell. That path may very well be dangerous,” Powell says. This would mean that they would pick a route on either side of the victim. They also want to ensure that they don’t drop any debris on the victim as they descend the cliff.

Secure Ropes. The officers must make sure that they tie off their ropes to something secure. This could even be one of the vehicles. They set up the ropes over the top of the cliff and secure the safety line. They always rappel with two ropes. “If you have just one line and something goes wrong, and it breaks, you’re just going to fall. Whereas if you have two lines, if one breaks, the other catches your weight,” Powell says.

Rappel down the cliff. Two officers are sent over the edge and they rappel downwards until they get to the same elevation as the victim. They then secure themselves and work their way over horizontally to the victim. Generally one officer observes and sees what is going on, and another goes along to help.

Stokes basket.  Once the officers have reached the victim, a stokes basket is lowered from the top. A stokes basket is a closed-in stretcher that allows a person to be securely fastened. If the person has a neck injury, they would put a collar on him, if he had a broken bone, it would be splinted and secured so it doesn’t move.

Hoist. The basket is then hoisted up by the officers at the top of the cliff. The officers, who went down to help the victim, guide the basket to ensure the victim does not hit any obstacles. One officer will go up with the basket, and the other will stay at the bottom until the basket is at the top.

Treat for injuries. Once the victim is safely at the top, he is transferred from the stokes basket to the EMS gurney and then treated and assessed by EMS staff. If necessary at the point, the victim will be escorted to the hospital.