Martin Foran of Lancashire

Learning to survive

Snow, ice, wind and punishing cold — the bitter weather that sends Central Albertans packing for the tropics attracted search and rescue worker from the United Kingdom to Red Deer County.

Snow, ice, wind and punishing cold — the bitter weather that sends Central Albertans packing for the tropics attracted search and rescue worker from the United Kingdom to Red Deer County.

Sixteen search and rescue workers from England and Scotland crossed the Atlantic Ocean to learn to better cope with extreme cold conditions for international rescues.

Imagine their surprise they got off the plane in Calgary on Jan. 25 and it was a record 17 C.

“When we left England it was -2 C. We thought what is this? We weren’t sure if it was global warming or what,” said Dean Nankivell a 24-year fire-fighting veteran with Greater Manchester Fire Rescue.

Luckily for the U.K. crew, more normal January weather kicked in by the end of last week. And Nankivell and the others got a taste of a real Alberta winter before wrapping up their training Saturday with Red Deer County’s Protective Services department.

The exercise is part of a partnership that evolved over the last few years between U.K. and Red Deer County search and rescue workers.

Both teams attended a 2012 Texas training session on collapsed building rescues and got to work together. “They thought our team was well skilled and we developed a lot of respect for each other,” recalled Ric Henderson, director of protective services for the county.

Red Deer County workers have since attended tower rescue training sessions in the U.K. And firefighters from Britain and Scotland first travelled to Red Deer County for training last winter — which was much harsher. They returned last week for a skills update.

As an international search and rescue volunteer, Nankivell said he must be ready to encounter any kind of weather — from Haiti’s near tropical heat to Finland’s chill.

He recalled being unprepared for Japan’s cold while assisting after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami struck. One problem was that the U.K. search and rescue workers were wearing steel-toed boots when overnight temperatures sank to -5 to -10 C.

Nankivell gleaned during his training with Red Deer County’s search and rescue team that steel-toed boots channel the cold right to your feet.

And “once you lose heat it’s very hard to warm up again.”

Dressing in layers and having extra boot liners that can be switched out if a pair gets wet are some of the other tips the team took back to the U.K. They will also replace metal-handled tools, and exchange old-school wooden snowshoes for lighter aluminum ones. “We’ll be trading some of our gear for 21st-century stuff,” said Nankivell.

The U.K workers discovered how to keep an injured individual warm by erecting an aluminum foil barrier on the far side of a campfire to reflect heat towards the person lying on the ground.

Sleeping under lean-tos made of pine branches near Crimson Lake in -15 weather, snowshoeing at Springbrook, and lighting a campfire with petroleum jelly, cotton and peat moss were some of the other things the search and rescue workers did during their Central Alberta sojourn.

Although there wasn’t as much snow or freezing as expected in Alberta this winter, Nankivell still felt local conditions were more appropriate than at home, where January temperatures range from zero to 6 C.

“It was a perfect opportunity . . . If there suddenly happens to be an earthquake in a cold part of the world, we can reflect back on our training here and have something in our toolbox.”

Henderson believes local search and rescue workers are gaining a reputation for their strong cold-weather survival skills. He feels the sessions with the U.K. firefighters were a great experience for Red Deer County workers, strengthening an international partnership.

“We were able to speak about our team and explain some Canadian ways.”

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com

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