Emergency response a 'real calling', says nautical rescue director

After the death of a Montreal firefighter, industry insider says safety for these men and women is a spiritual, as well as technical, profession

Emergency response a 'real calling', says nautical rescue director

Montreal remains in mourning after the death of a firefighter during a rescue mission in the St Lawrence River - and the incident was a stark reminder of the dangerous situations emergency response workers put themselves in to keep others safe.

Miles Smit, Director, Toronto Search and Rescue – Marine (T-SAR), reflected on the tragic loss of life and on how, for these professionals, safety is about more than just equipment and training, it's also a state of mind. 

“The professionals, no matter how well equipped and no matter how well-trained they are, undertake dangerous work,” said Smit. Regardless of precautions, he says, serving populations exposed to risk also exposes emergency responders to danger themselves. You cannot have absolute safety or zero risk.

“In some ways, it’s a real service calling to want to do [this type of work],” he added.

Last week, Pierre Lacroix and three others were rescuing two passengers onboard a boat that got caught up in rapids on the river. During the rescue mission, the firefighter’s boat capsized, leading to Lacroix's death.

For nautical rescue teams, even the sure-footed or experienced, there are operational hazards. Responding to a call and going out on the water on cold nights is a huge undertaking, for example.

“There’s a physical dimension, there’s a readiness dimension, and there’s a mental and spiritual dimension,” says Smit. “You want them to be very ready for the procedures and the realities that they’re going to face when they take a call – especially if it’s dark, wet and windy.”

“During a nautical rescue mission, procedure depends on the situation presented to the firemen at the moment of the intervention […] “[Firemen] receive initial 50 hours of theoretical and practical training, as well as continued training done by the firemen,” says Gonzalo Nunez, spokesperson, City of Montreal.

The SIM receives around 200 calls for nautical rescue missions each year, says Nunez.

There are different types of calls that the SIM responds to, either vessel breakdowns or maritime emergencies.

“In both cases, we are often called during difficult weather conditions or at night. The risks are thus increased by these elements. So, as well as responding to a 911 call, firemen also have to face these conditions,” says Nunez.

He says that there are numerous control measures are put into place to ensure the security of the workers:

“As well as safety equipment and training, continuous training is also in place. In addition, work methods are continuously evolving.”

Safety training

A big part of combat training is preparedness, and the dimensions of preparedness map to the dimensions of the danger. "There’s good equipment, there’s good, thorough training and then there’s a good understanding,” says Smit.

There’s also a mental aspect to training: “To recover a dead body in the water, which counts as a success in a recovery mission, is a very troubling experience. There’s a life lost, there’s a family there. Safety is always about more than just technique or compliance.”

Speaking about T-SAR, Smit says that for its crew, “the number one thing [we do] is make sure that they have skin in the game, and they receive very thorough training and are well kitted-out. This means that they have and wear the gear, and they use equipment that’s up to the best standards, but also we try to make every practice patrol a training patrol because you want them to be strongly bonded together as a team.”

Informal bonding among teams is key, it helps flesh out the different roles the team plays. There is also a significant technical aspect to marine search and rescue, notably communications:

“There’s a strong radio practice for any marine work, and certainly for search and rescue work,” says Smit.

Search and rescue teams are typically operating with other groups such as Coast Guards but also police, fire, professional boaters: “In other words, your allies really include every responsible citizen who is on and knows the water,” he says.

As in the case of the Montreal firefighter, one of the huge risks for rescue crews is going overboard.

“The pathways are tight, and there are railings and things like that. And there are also hard features by necessity, for tethering and other uses. If you’re scrambling, if you’re responding to either weather or rescue situations there’s always a risk that somebody can be hurt,” says Smit.

Exposure to elements can also result in other health risks such as pneumonia, and also the nature of the work means that there’s fatigue and straining of the senses. “If you’re on full alert, you’re spending attention and energy and nerves at a level that is not sustainable.”


T-SAR is a volunteer-driven Canadian Coast Guard auxiliary unit.

While the Canadian Coast Guard handle big bodies of water and larger boats, there is an incredible amount of inland water throughout Canada, and a high volume of activity and life on the water.

So, says Smit, there are a lot of these auxiliary units that operate on a volunteer basis in good standing.

“And we’re one of those units. We’ve just wrapped up our seventh year on the water, and we were formed 10 years ago to fill a remarkable gap,” says Smit.

Indeed, Toronto is the biggest city in Canada and being right on Lake Ontario there are millions of people who use the water every year, but there was no dedicated Coast Guard unit for the city.

“It was really needed on a number of levels, one just for physical presence on the water […] but also for the supporting activities of education, outreach and fostering safe boating culture,” says Smit.

The unit is a registered charity with over 30 volunteers – the crew bring experience from related areas such as firefighting, hospital safety, etc. T-SAR is on call 24/7 and perform multiple weekly patrols during boating season. They also receive tasking from GRCC Trenton which receives water distress calls.

“it's an intensive undertaking, we want to be on the water as much as possible,” says Smit. “We want to be providing as full coverage as possible so we're always looking for volunteers.