Water rescue crews swamped with dozens of calls over weekend, as Calgarians urged to be more careful

·3 min read
Rafters and paddleboarders make their way down the Bow River in Calgary on a sunny Monday afternoon. (Robson Fletcher/CBC - image credit)
Rafters and paddleboarders make their way down the Bow River in Calgary on a sunny Monday afternoon. (Robson Fletcher/CBC - image credit)

For the latest developments on Monday, see: Girl found in Calgary lake and unconscious man pulled from river as rescue crews field dozens of calls

Calgarians are being warned by the city to exercise caution on the water after aquatics crews were kept busy with dozens of calls for rescues over the weekend — the most Calgary Fire Department spokesperson Carol Henke said she has ever seen.

As temperatures reached blistering highs on Sunday that are expected to increase in the next few days, many are heading to rivers to enjoy the weather while keeping cool.

However, Henke said Monday that some are taking risks such as using inexpensive rafts that are easily punctured on debris, neglecting life jackets or tying rafts together, which makes them difficult to navigate.

And because the water at this time of year is moving fast and very cold, a lot can go wrong.

"[Some people are] not quite familiar with everything you need to have, and how dangerous the water can be if you're not prepared," Henke said.

"It's just a matter of time before something tragic happens, and typically those things can be prevented."

Last summer, there were at least 12 possible and confirmed drownings in Alberta between June and August.

Know the hazards

Henke encouraged Calgarians to brush up on the basics of water safety.

For starters, rafts get caught easily on bridge abutments and the people on them wind up dumped in the water, and tying boats together makes them easily snarled. Oars are needed to manoeuvre around obstacles.

Those who opt to leave their life jacket in their raft instead of wearing it discover they can't reach for it, or put it on fast enough when they are suddenly submerged in fast, freezing water.

Drinking alcohol blunts judgment in the event of an emergency, and its affects are exacerbated in the heat.

Bluebird Contracting
Bluebird Contracting

The notorious channel on the Bow River called Harvie Passage — which was remodelled for safety after the flood in 2013 closed it for five years — remains "a real hazard" that is prone to flipping rafts, Henke said.

And because people are parking in zones where they are not supposed to, crews cannot urgently respond to emergencies.

"I can't impress enough how important it is to keep those areas clear," Henke said.

"We cannot launch our boats quickly, to do a rescue in a timely manner, when people are blocking those areas. So please, if there's a 'no parking' sign, that means no parking."

Hefty fines for breaking the rules, Calgary bylaw says

According to inspector Brad Johnson with Calgary Bylaw Services, broken rules can be costly for Calgarians this summer.

Calgary's water safety bylaw mandates that a ticket for failing to wear a life jacket or personal flotation device includes a mandatory court appearance and up to $500 in fines.

Littering, drinking and transporting liquor on waterways will also come with hefty fines.

"We will be out there assisting with education [in a] chat with citizens... but also enforce the bylaws," Johnson said.

The City of Calgary posted tips for Calgarians to stay safe. They include:

  • Scouting the waterway for potential hazards and checking weather and water conditions.

If you decide to go on a waterway, make sure you have the following:

  • A raft that is appropriate for the waterway, and meets your weight capacity or that of your group.

  • Proper paddles or oars to help you control your watercraft and steer around bridge pillars.

  • Correctly fitting life jackets or personal flotation devices for you and everyone in the watercraft.

  • A water safety kit.

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