Living on the edge

Roughly 12 people a year are rescued by specially trained officers after falling over the Scarborough Bluffs

Gary Crawford grew up in the Scarborough area and is now the city councillor for Ward 36, which covers Bluffer’s Park. Ever since he was a teenager, he remembers stories of people scaling the sides of the Scarborough Bluffs or venturing close to the edge to experience the majestic views.

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.

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

Although the city has put signs and fences up to keep people away from the eroding cliffs, there are always those who take the risk.

People wandering too close to the edge of the cliffs is an ongoing problem that tends to happen in spring and summer, Crawford says.

To be ready to rescue people who fall over the cliffs, Toronto Fire Services trains a unit for weeks at its special operations centre.

The officers have to do extensive training in rappelling and victim recovery.

Fire Department Rescue Steps:

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

Secure ropes | The officers must make sure they tie their ropes to something secure, like a vehicle. They then 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 downward until they get to the same level as the victim. They then secure themselves and work their way over horizontally to the victim. One officer usually observes the rescue while the other performs it.

Stokes basket | Once the officers have reached the victim, a Stokes basket is lowered from the top. A Stokes basket is a closed-in litter that securely fastens the victim for rescue. If the person has a neck injury, they would put a collar on him/her. Also, if he or she had a broken bone, it would be splinted and secured so it doesn’t move.

Hoist | The officers at the top of the cliff then hoist the basket up. The officers who went down to help the victim guide the basket to ensure the victim doesn’t 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 or she is transferred from the Stokes basket to an EMS gurney. He or she is then treated and assessed by EMS staff. If necessary, the rescued will be escorted to the hospital.

“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, Toronto Fire’s district chief of public information.

When someone is reported stuck on the Scarborough Bluffs, the fire department sends out its rescue truck.

The truck is different from the usual pumper trucks, which are used to put out fires, because it has all the necessary equipment to perform a rope rescue. The firefighters usually perform the rescue with EMS and police waiting at the top of the cliff.

“Some people slide down or they fall and they can’t get up without injuring themselves,” Powell says. “Others are climbing and they have injured themselves, and they need to be rescued because they can’t move.”

A normal response unit generally includes about 12 officers. However, depending on the circumstances, Toronto Fire may not send all 12.

Once they arrive at the scene, there are some specific steps that officers follow to make sure they’re performing the rescue safely.

Although the officers are highly trained in these rescues, Crawford says it’s important to prevent these accidents before they happen.

The city provides education in the community and local schools for people to understand the dangers of the Bluffs.

“People do have to take precautions and realize that, as beautiful as it is, it is dangerous,” Crawford says.