The Red Deer River is a tricky place to perform rescues at the best of times, but never more than in its current state of ice, slush and open water.
On Tuesday, Rich Penketh was speeding up and down the river — over frozen and liquid surfaces, and even across sandbars.
A technician with Air Rider Hovercraft International of Parry Sound, Ont., Penketh was showcasing the capabilities of his air-cushion ride, with plans to do the same for emergency rescue personnel today.
“We’ve got 25 fire departments from Central Alberta at this point,” said Howard Bradley, a partner with Red Deer’s Rocky Mountain Phoenix, which has the Western Canada distribution rights for Air Rider products.
Rocky Mountain Phoenix already provides emergency vehicles, equipment and services to municipalities and other organizations throughout that region, and beyond. Hovercraft are a natural extension of its offerings, suggested Bradley.
“It’s another tool,” he said, describing how hovercraft can operate over varied terrain and in a wide range of conditions.
Bradley had his eyes opened a month ago, when he travelled to Parry Sound and rode a hovercraft over everything from metre-high snowdrifts to the white water of a churning river.
“They’re a 12-month-a-year boat,” he said, pointing out that hovercraft have been used to help with rescue efforts at the Washington state mudslide.
The fire-rescue model that Rocky Mountain Phoenix brought in from Ontario weighs about 1,100 kg (2,500 pounds) and has a top speed of around 100 km/h (60 m.p.h.)
It’s kept aloft by a 23-horsepower motor, pushed forward or back by a 40-horsepower engine, and can carry 400 kg (880 pounds), with seating for four.
Hovercraft can be propelled onto and off of trailers, and don’t require a boat launch to enter the water, he added.
Their powerful drive fans could even be used to clear smoke from roadways, or the heat and smoke from burning buildings.
“I’ve got 50,000 CFM (cubic feet per minute) coming off the back end, so I could clear out a high-rise,” said Bradley.
Hovercraft have become a popular rescue vehicle in Europe, and he’s optimistic they’ll gain favour in North America as well.
Following today’s demo in Red Deer, Rocky Mountain Phoenix will haul its unit to High River for a similar exhibition there on Thursday.
“Our plan is to get them set up and do them at different locations throughout Western Canada,” said Bradley.
“This is the time of year to show them, so we’re going to hustle to get as many in while we’ve still got an ice-water combination.” The cost of an Air Rider fire-rescue hovercraft is about $75,000.
In addition to its Red Deer headquarters, Rocky Mountain Phoenix has branches in Abbotsford, B.C., and Bridgewater, N.S.