Brits brave cold to train with rescue squad

A British search and rescue contingent were in Central Alberta last week to put their skills to the cold weather test.

A British search and rescue contingent were in Central Alberta last week to put their skills to the cold weather test.

Fifteen firefighters, who are also members of the U.K. International Search and Rescue team, joined Red Deer County’s Technical Rescue Task Force for nearly a week of training.

Classroom instruction last weekend was tested out in the field near Crimson Lake on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Ric Henderson, assistant county manager and a task force leader, said their British counterparts were required to build their own shelters, where they spent the next two days and nights.

They also practised survival and compass navigation skills and took on new challenges such as snowshoeing.

David O’Neill, a 21-year firefighting veteran from the London Fire Brigade, said the team was extremely pleased with how their Canadian experience went.

“Everyone on the team was just bowled over by the hospitality, and how much we’ve learned,” said O’Neill, 41. Eleven of the team were from London and others came from other fire departments.

Among the skills the team worked on was learning how to attract attention using flares or smoke, navigating by day and night, and basic skills for surviving sub-zero temperatures for lengthy periods. Some of the local rescuers also participated in the training exercises.

Dealing with the unrelenting cold proved the biggest challenge for some, O’Neill said. The dryness of Alberta’s climate and the fluffy snow it creates were also eye-openers. Sinking in snow up to their chests proved a memorable experience.

Snowshoeing was a new skill and the team got quite good at it by the end of their training stint, he said.

Making their way about in the cold was similar to working at altitude. “You just got exhausted so quickly.”

While the team may not find many opportunities to practise Canadian wilderness-style survival techniques at home, as an international search and rescue group they must train for all environments because they never know where they will be needed. They have been called as far away as Japan on previous missions.

The British group first met and formed ties with their Canadian counterparts three years ago during exercises at a training facility called Disaster City in College Station, Tex. Members of the county’s technical rescue team tightened that bond when they travelled to Britain in the fall of 2012 to train and participate in the World Rescue Challenge.

Henderson said the partnership has worked great.

“They enjoyed it so much they hope to send some other people.”

As well, Henderson will be among a pair of local technical rescue experts invited to speak at a conference in Manchester in May.

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