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Montreal firefighters call for suspension of water rescue service after dangerous mission

The Montreal Firefighters Association is calling for the immediate suspension of water rescues as a precautionary measure for its members.  (Submitted by the Montreal Firefighters Association - image credit)
The Montreal Firefighters Association is calling for the immediate suspension of water rescues as a precautionary measure for its members. (Submitted by the Montreal Firefighters Association - image credit)

The union representing firefighters in Montreal is demanding the complete suspension of water rescue operations until a major overhaul of training practices and a review of equipment are completed.

The Montreal Firefighters Association made the demands in a report filed with Quebec's workplace safety board (CNESST) following a recent operation in the St. Lawrence River that it says could have cost the lives of firefighters.

The dangerous operation occurred on the night of Oct. 24, according to the union, when four firefighters were in a boat on the water searching for someone after an unconfirmed report of a person jumping from the top of the Mercier Bridge.

The union says the crew members soon found themselves in an area of the river they were not familiar with and which is non-navigable and unmarked for the public.

In a news release issued Friday, the union says the situation could have ended disastrously, "in conditions eerily similar to those that tragically cost the life of firefighter Pierre Lacroix last year and injured three of his fellow crew members."

Lacroix died on Oct. 17, 2021, when the rescue boat he and three colleagues were using to help two boaters in distress in the Lachine rapids of the St. Lawrence River capsized.

In October of this year, the CNESST released a report saying various problems, including incomplete information, the boat the Montreal fire department deployed for rescues and inadequate training, led to Lacroix's drowning.

Following the release of the report, the union sent out a statement criticizing the CNESST for not producing "any firm recommendations on the corrections to be made."

Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada
Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada

On Friday, the union again criticized the CNESST for its training practices and the lack of procedures for returning boats to service following storage, maintenance and repair.

"The only solution is the complete and integral suspension of the water rescue service until the training, equipment, number of responders and boats as well as the capacity of the service to manage and intervene in such missions are adequate in order to avoid losing rescuers again," said union vice-president, Richard Lafortune, in the release.

The city of Montreal said the first priority of the fire department will always be to protect the lives of citizens, including the health and safety of firefighters.

"However, the profession of firefighter, by its very nature, will always involve a certain level of risk," said city spokesperson Guillaume Rivest.

"When people find themselves in a life-threatening situation, whether in a burning building or in distress on a river at night, firefighters have a duty to respond to help those victims."

The fire department and the Montreal Firefighters Association are creating a working committee with a mandate to review and optimize the training of firefighters in nautical rescue, Rivest said.

The CNESST says a meeting is scheduled next Monday with the fire department and its union, and the requests will be on the agenda.

The meeting comes less than two weeks before the start of a coroner's inquiry into Lacroix's death.

Coroner Géhane Kamel will preside over the inquest, which will aim to shed light on the probable causes and circumstances of his death. Recommendations may also be made following the investigation.

The inquiry will look into the mission of nautical rescue and prevention teams, as well as their intervention techniques and how they communicate.