'10 seconds later and he would have been gone': Police water rescuers hone skills on dangerous ice

The Toronto Police Marine Unit let CBC Toronto strap an underwater, 360-degree camera to one of their helmets during a refresher course.

Toronto Police Marine Unit says temperature swings present serious danger for icy waterways

Rescuers with Toronto's police marine unit wear extensive thermal gear, such as dry suits, to protect themselves from the elements during winter rescues. (Ryan Mahle/CBC)

Const. Jeff Lucifora with the police marine unit can't forget a call his squad responded to last October of a capsized canoeist near Toronto's Cherry Beach.

"We flew over there in one of our Zodiacs in minutes... his arm was sticking out of the water and when we got there we grabbed him and we basically pulled him onto the boat," said Lucifora. 

"Seconds count. Five seconds, 10 seconds later, and he would have been gone."

Watch an ice rescue from the victim's perspective:

Tuesday morning, Const. Lucifora and his team let CBC Toronto strap an underwater, 360-degree camera to one of their helmets during a refresher course. Lucifora says training is critical in the rush of a dynamic rescue, like the one in October.

"Training kicks in, muscle memory kicks in and you just do what you have to do," he said.

Lucifora has been on the marine unit for about a decade, but says the training simulations training help.

"It's good because you get to see the angle from the victim's view," he said. "You get an appreciation of the cold water."

The Toronto Police Marine Unit warns this week's unseasonably warm weather has melted some ice, even though it may still look safe to walk on. (Ryan Mahle/CBC)

Risky pet owners chasing Fluffy onto ice a 'significant' problem

A "significant" amount of rescue operations are because well-meaning pet owners make the terrible decision to run out on the ice after their pet, says Const. Jeff Clarke, an instructor with the marine unit.

"The risk is now they're a victim, and usually the pet will get out and the owner will actually end up in the water and we have to rescue them," Clarke said. "It's better to call us and then we can effectively do that rescue safely."

Members of the Toronto Police Marine Unit conduct a training course Tuesday in the Toronto Harbour. (Ryan Mahle/CBC)

While Clarke said it's "gratifying" to save a life, Toronto police have a warning for people: avoid icy waterways, even when it looks like the ice is safe to be on.

"It's the worst it could possibly be right now," said Clarke of the ice conditions created by the wild temperature swings this winter in Toronto. "It's old ice — it's been around for a while — and now with these mild temperatures, anybody could break through at any time."

"We recommend people don't go out on the ice at all. It's better to just stay off the ice, period."

The Toronto Harbour is the classroom for the TPS Marine Unit to practice safety techniques and refresh skills for successful rescues. (Ryan Mahle/CBC)

The Toronto Police Marine Unit equipment includes:

  • Heavy duty personal flotation device (life-jacket that can support the weight of both rescuer and victim)
  • Rescue sling and rescue board
  • Ice picks, knife, helmet
  • Boots with picks on the bottom for traction
  • Dry suit (specific to ice and river rescues, so generally a bit thinner than a dry suit for SCUBA diving)


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