New Brunswick

As emergency calls for hikers in distress climb, fire chief says provincial help needed

The Sussex Fire Department has seen an increase in the number of emergency calls for hikers in distress in the past year, and Chief Bill Wanamaker is now calling on the provincial government to provide more funding for the department to be better prepared.

Sussex Fire Department went from receiving 2 or 3 calls annually, to receiving 10 this year alone

Sussex Fire Chief Bill Wanamaker says he thinks the provincial government should help cover the cost of additional training for his crews, particularly since it promotes the same trails his firefighters are being called to rescue hikers from at an increasing rate. (Aidan Cox/CBC)

The Sussex Fire Department has seen an increase in the number of emergency calls for hikers in distress, and its chief says it's going to need help from the province to handle the demand.

So far this year, the department has responded to 10 calls involving hikers who needed to be rescued or assisted after getting injured or lost while on a trail, said Chief Bill Wanamaker.

That figure is up from the two or three calls the department has typically seen in previous years, he said.

With the COVID-19 pandemic pushing people to seek activities that are outdoors and close to home, Wanamaker said he thinks more and more people are giving hiking a try, with some getting in over their heads with the trails they tackle.

And with the provincial government promoting trails, such as the Fundy Footpath — where eight of the 10 calls were for — Wanamaker said he thinks the province should play a role in making sure his firefighters are properly trained and equipped to respond when things go wrong.

"It's kind of in the, you know, in the government's hands in my book, or the way I see it.

"Like if, if the province is going to promote them, then I believe the province at some point has to provide funding to keep people trained to rescue hikers."

Tourism New Brunswick's website features the Fundy Footpath, with information on how to access it, and boasting "the views and wilderness experience are spectacular!"

Eight of the 10 calls the Sussex Fire Department has received for injured or distressed hikers in 2021 were for hikers who were on the Fundy Footpath. (Craig Norris/VideoBand)

And a map brochure available on the Fundy Trail Parkway's website includes a route for taking the Eye of the Needle trail, where the Sussex Fire Department was called to on two separate occasions this summer to help rescue hikers who broke their leg while hiking it.

The brochure marks the trail as double black diamond and includes a footnote, which says, "Please note: this challenging trail is not within the park boundary. Proceed at your own risk."

In an email to CBC News, New Brunswick government spokesperson Vicky Lutes said the Regional Development Corporation received a request from the St. Martins Fire Department asking for support for training and specialized equipment to assist with off-road rescue in the Fundy trail area.

"As this area is a priority tourism and recreation area, [the Regional Development Corporation] is open to discuss and work with communities on eligible projects to ensure the area is accessible and safe for the public," Lutes said.

Training courses would cost thousands, says fire chief

Wanamaker said the Sussex Fire Department is made up of himself, and a captain and lieutenant, both in paid full-time positions. The 35 firefighters who make up the department are volunteers. Wanamaker is paid for about 20 of the 40 hours he puts in every week.

With the rise in remote rescue calls, Wanamaker said the captain and lieutenant have "put a pile of time" into learning all the hiking trails in their coverage area and making plans for how to best get into them to do rescues.

But with the technical skills needed for some of the rescue calls that have come in, Wanamaker said it's become clear his firefighters need more training.

The Sussex Fire Department had to respond to two separate calls this summer of hikers breaking their legs while hiking the Eye of the Needle trail. (Submitted by James Donald)

"We would need to get into probably more rope rescue training for higher angles than we're trained for right now. You know, there's probably a need for, you know, possibly another ATV, because sometimes you need more than one for sure.

"And if you're going to do anything by water, which we have that capability there's, you know, like an advanced water operations course that we need to take."

Wanamaker said each of those courses, which can be provided by local companies, could cost the department about $6,000, which would otherwise have to come out of its operating budget.

Aside from getting financial help from the province, Wanamaker said he thinks another option could be to charge a fee for hiking certain trails, which could then go into a fund that covers the department's training and equipment needs.

"I'm not sure whether you charge the hiker or how this all rolls out, but it's certainly got everybody talking and asking a bunch of questions as to, you know, where we're going to go, how we're going to fund everything."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Aidan Cox

Web reporter/editor

Aidan Cox is a web writer for the CBC based in Fredericton. He can be reached at aidan.cox@cbc.ca and followed on Twitter @Aidan4jrn.

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