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'Substantial risk of serious injury to our firefighters' in saving dog says South River Fire Chief

'When there is a human life at risk and within our capability to save, our firefighters will always step forward and take necessary actions to ensure every effort is made to preserve that life'
20220209 South River Machar Fire Chief Risto Maki Josh Watson Photo
South River/Machar Fire Chief Risto Maki

South River Machar Fire Chief Risto Maki says it was too risky for rescuers to save a dog that had fallen through the ice on a river containing fast-moving currents.

Maki was responding to a South River couple's complaint that they had called for help on January 2 after their dog chased a bird onto the thin ice of the South River in Joly Township, and then couldn't climb back to safety.

See: South River firemen stood by as pet dog drowned says owner

"We don't do swift water rescue," Maki told BayToday. "Where they live is on the river with currents and stuff of that nature. So we don't provide that level of service. We just can't go beyond our level of service because that's when people get hurt or killed.

"So if I look at my roster, I can't sacrifice any one of them for an animal, whether it be a pet or wildlife."

Maki confirms his department does ice water rescue, "but we do not do swift water." Nor does North Bay, confirmed Chief Jason Whiteley.

"When we're going in there, our rescue technique is we tether to the victim and we pull them back out. We can't guarantee the safety of firefighters. You're going to tether them to a dog that's in distress, whether it's gonna start biting? Or damage the suit and put the firefighter at risk of injury or death when they're out there in the water?

Maki says every case is different and for each, they do a risk analysis.

"The best way to describe it is we analyze the risk versus the benefit. So for human life, we take significant risks to protect human life, but for animal life, we don't take the same level of risk."

Maki says near that point in the river is a causeway that produces a current.

"Both myself and the other firefighter were acting in a very professional manner, and we're very calm and reassuring and did what we could to protect the rest of the lives and to encourage them from putting themselves in harm's way and getting hurt or killed. Obviously, we're not going to enable them to put themselves further in harm's way by pushing them out in a boat and hoping for the best. So if we're saying it's not safe for us to do so, then obviously we wouldn't encourage somebody without any training or equipment to do it as well."

Maki says the original caller was informed of that. "Regrettably, our fire department does not conduct animal rescues due to the substantial risk of serious injury to our firefighters. Nevertheless, two staff members attended the scene to assess and ensure the safety of the owners or any bystanders."

Upon arrival, the firefights met with the pet owner and reiterated that, due to safety concerns, they would be unable to perform the rescue.

"We want to assure you that all communications our staff had with the owners were conducted in a professional and compassionate manner. We acknowledge the difficulty of this decision for pet owners and empathize with the emotional challenge it poses for all members of the fire department. Unfortunately, the inherent risks associated with such incidents prevent us from allowing owners or bystanders to jeopardize their lives."

Areas with significant current present substantial dangers for ice water rescue operations and there have been instances of firefighter fatalities during swift water rescue training in Ontario in recent years.

Jeff Turl

About the Author: Jeff Turl

Jeff is a veteran of the news biz. He's spent a lengthy career in TV, radio, print and online, covering both news and sports. He enjoys free time riding motorcycles and spoiling grandchildren.
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