August 1, 2019 6:13 pm
Updated: August 1, 2019 7:24 pm

Hamilton fire chief says rope rescue that injured firefighter was ‘absolutely preventable’

WATCH ABOVE: A fire fighter was injured during a rescue call at Hamilton's Albion Falls. Shallima Maharaj reports.

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The Hamilton Fire Department’s chief says Wednesday night’s rescue call to Albion Falls — which saw a firefighter suffer serious injuries, including fractures from a fall — was “absolutely preventable.”

Chief Dave Cunliffe revealed in a press conference Thursday morning the lengths firefighters went to rescue three hikers who had “lost their way” in the falls area. He said close to 20 firefighters were on scene for the rescue, all wearing full safety protection because they were in a “nature-type area.”

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“I can’t stress enough these types of situations are absolutely preventable,” said Cunliffe. “People need to adhere to the signage and the protection that’s being put in place.”

Cunliffe outlined details of the operation at the city’s training centre for firefighters and paramedics on the East Mountain.

READ MORE: Hamilton firefighters perform late-night rope rescue at Albion Falls

He says the difficulty in the rescue was the darkness as emergency crews used flashlights, as well as visual and verbal call-outs, to pinpoint the hikers’ whereabouts.

Cunliffe said one crew went to the lookout near the north parking lot in search of the hikers and others went to an area with stair access to the south side above the falls.

That’s where four firefighters accessed a pathway, with one of the crew stepping to an edge where he called out to the hikers.

Walking back to the pathway, the firefighter lost his footing and fell almost seven metres.

The other firefighters called for more resources and additional crew along with paramedics and began a rescue operation to retrieve their fallen comrade, Cunliffe said.

Medical teams made their way down to assist with the firefighter’s injuries while emergency personnel set up a rope rescue to recover the man and transport him to hospital.

READ MORE: Several people rescued from 2 waterfalls by Hamilton emergency crews

Cunliffe says the critical incident stress team, a peer group that monitors the health of firefighters, was a part of the operation and is expected to keep in touch with many of the emergency workers over a period of time to monitor their mental health.

The incident underlines a message Hamilton fire and the city’s parks department tried to communicate to the general public earlier this week about the dangers near some of the city’s falls.

On Tuesday, Deputy Chief John Verbeek told Global News rope rescues were down substantially from year to year, apparently thanks to more fences and city signage.

Until Wednesday, firefighters had been summoned to just four rope rescues in 2019, down from seven in 2018. In 2017 and 2016, there were 15 and 23 rope rescues, respectively.

READ MORE: Rope rescues down substantially after upgraded waterfall safety measures, say Hamilton fire officials

Verbeek also stressed how much demand a rope rescue places on the department’s resources per call. He said a typical rescue could involve six fire units and an average of 18 personnel on scene to assist.

In Thursday’s press conference, Cunliffe acknowledged the work the city has done to deter people from visiting precarious nature areas, saying it’s extremely important that visitors heed the safety warnings.

“They need to stay on the trails or at the lookouts that are meant for them to be on,” said Cunliffe. “In this case, the individuals that we were going to assist had left the trail area and got themselves into a situation where, because of the darkness, they didn’t know where they were.”

Meanwhile, director of licensing and bylaw services Ken Leendertsee says that following a review of the evidence, the hikers involved in this incident could face charges “for being in a prohibited area.”

“Obviously, the message is still not getting out,” said Leendertsee. “Today I assigned two investigators to follow up on the incident that happened last night.”

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