Fire department looks at charging user fees for waterfall rescues

City councillors will get the findings later this year when they look at city user fees.

Community sentiment and increased attention prompting review

Rope rescues use a lot of resources and require specialized equipment and training. (Dave Ritchie/CBC)

Hamilton's fire department is looking at charging a user fee for people who need rope rescues at the city's waterfalls — a notion that one person who needed rescuing this year says "doesn't seem fair."

The "increased attention" along with "some community sentiment" have prompted the department to look into the issue, city spokesperson Jen Recine told CBC News in an email. City councillors will get the information later this year as they look at 2017 user fees.

If they hadn't done that rope rescue, I would have died.- Corey Dixon

The department is doing a "review and environmental scan" over the next few months to see if "maybe a user fee should be charged," she said.

The review is "in the interest of due diligence." The calls can use up a lot of resources. The typical rope rescue call requires an average of 22 firefighters.

Rope rescues have gotten increased attention this year after a number of high-profile incidents. They even prompted Tom Jackson, a Ward 6 city councillor, to meet with emergency officials to discuss safety measures around Albion Falls.

In February, for example, 21-year-old actor Corey Dixon fell at Albion Falls and has talked publicly about his recovery.

In June, a 25-year-old Toronto man died after falling at Devil's Punchbowl. He was found conscious but badly injured, and firefighters prepared a high-angle rescue using ropes and a basket to pull him out. His condition deteriorated rapidly and firefighters carried him out, and he died in hospital.  

A man in his 50s also died in July at Albion Falls while on an afternoon hike with his family.

Dixon, who was badly injured from the fall, said the notion of a user fee is "ridiculous." 

"If someone needs a rope rescue and their life is on the line and they badly need it, why would you charge someone for that?" said Dixon, who is calling for fencing and better safety measures at Albion Falls.

"If they hadn't done that rope rescue, I would have died. It doesn't seem fair and it doesn't seem morally right to (charge someone) for that."

In most cases, he said, "no one purposely falls off a cliff."

Fire department numbers show that the city is on track to surpass other years when it comes to rope rescues. As of the end of August, firefighters had answered 15 rope rescue calls, although one was a false alarm. 

There have been at least four more since. One Saturday in early September, firefighters did three separate rescues, saving a total of eight people and a dog. This week, firefighters recovered the body of a man who died at Devil's Punchbowl. Police say they do not consider the death suspicious.

Here are numbers for other years:

  • 2015: 19.
  • 2014: 20.
  • 2013: 19.
  • 2012: 15.
  • 2011: 13.
  • 2010: 13.

The most common waterfalls for rope rescues are Tews/Websters Falls, followed by Devil's Punchbowl and Albion Falls.

Late last month, the department acknowledged hearing from people that maybe they should charge for the rescues, but at that time, department spokesperson Claudio Mostacci said it was not under consideration.

"So do we start charging people for when we go to a pot left on the stove?" he told CBC Hamilton at the time.

"We have so many cooking fires — but things happen, and we take care of it.

"We're not going to put a cost on this. We're on duty, and this is part of the job."