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Montreal fire department beefs up ice rescue training amid mild weather

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Faced with increasingly mild winters, Montreal's fire department (SIM) is kicking its ice rescue training into high gear.

Martin Guilbault, head of the SIM's training division, said the constant fluctuations above and below the freezing mark have made the ice especially unsafe this year.

"The fact that the weather goes up over zero and then below zero and over zero, it doesn't make the ice very thick for a long period of time," he told CTV News.

The SIM's ice rescue team has performed 10 rescues since the start of 2024 alone, and more interventions are expected as the ice continues to thaw. 

Last week, the team was spotted doing practice drills in the St. Lawrence River. Guilbault explained they were filming an instructional video, which trainees will watch before testing the waters themselves.

Given the urgency ice breaks, the training required is highly specific. About 150 SIM firefighters are qualified to perform ice rescues.

"We're dealing more with freezing water and the fact that when people go in the water because the ice breaks, we have [only] a couple of minutes to get to them," Guilbault said, stressing the risks of hypothermia.

"The other challenging part of it is to get to the person, because you can have thicker ice, then thinner ice."

The SIM uses specialized rescue boats made by the company UMA to churn through as much icy water as possible. In some cases, a rescuer, tethered to the boat, will shimmy onto the ice to retrieve the endangered person.

But no amount of training can beat prevention, said Guilbaut. Under the current conditions, he's advising Montrealers not to venture onto the ice at all.

"The main fact is, we don't want to use our techniques to go get you out of the water," he said. "Don't go on the ice, especially in the days to come."

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