Enforcement is deterring waterfall mishaps: councillor
A MAN CLIMBING down the gorge at Webster Falls slips and falls onto a woman, sending her falling six metres to the bottom.
There, the woman — who has suffered minor injuries — is joined by more than a dozen other people, some with scrapes, waiting for Hamilton firefighters to help on a hot late afternoon this past Sunday.
It will take more than two hours for the specially trained firefighters to get set up and use a series of nylon ropes and safety gear to pull the woman and three others to the top. Meanwhile, the other roughly dozen people below find their own way hiking out, refusing help from firefighters who want to take them on a different route.
This chaotic scene is the latest in a string
Firefighters have responded to 13 calls for high-angle rope rescues so far this year. Bylaw officers have handed out seven fines.
of high-angle rope rescues at Hamilton waterfalls that happen when people ignore warnings and signs, going off the official trails.
There have been 13 calls for rope rescues so far this year. Eight of those times, firefighters had to actually use a harness or stretcher to lift someone out. This includes one fatality — a Toronto photographer lost his footing and plunged to his death at Albion Falls.
Last year, there were 29 calls, 23 of which ended in actual rope rescues. This was an increase from 19 calls in 2015 and 20 calls in 2014, according to Hamilton Fire Department numbers provided to The Spectator.
Albion Falls has been at the centre of the public and political backlash over people ignoring safety warnings and trespassing.
This has led the city to bolster safety features, including adding $75,000 worth of fencing and increasing ticketing enforcement of trespassers.
City bylaw has handed out seven fines — a zero-tolerance $130 penalty — in the first two weeks since increasing enforcement against trespassers at Albion Falls.
Coun. Sam Merulla says the Albion Falls enforcement is “absolutely” working.
“We only had one call on the weekend and that was for a medical emergency,” he said. “It’s been a significant deterrent.”
At Webster Falls, the Hamilton Conservation Authority is working with city committees so they have a uniform response to issues at waterfalls. This includes looking at more signage and fencing, said Gord Costie, director of conservation area services.
This year, to stem the flow of traffic and problems with parked cars in the area, the conservation authority has set up a shuttle service to take visitors to Tew and Webster Falls. More than 5,000 cars have been diverted, he said.
Costie said visitors are warned during the shuttle ride to stay on official trails and viewing platforms. They are also warned about people who trespass and end up needing rope rescues.
At Webster, there are signs warning visitors to stay out of the water and off dangerous cliffs and steep slopes. The conservation authority also removed the old stairs down to the bottom a couple of years ago.
The issue is some people can access the bottom of the gorge by trespassing on neighbouring private property. “We have no intention of fencing entire escarpment. That’s not reasonable,” Costie said. “At some point, people need to be accountable for the own safety.”
The conservation authority wants people to visit waterfalls and natural areas, but visitors need to “respect nature at a safe distance,” Costie said. “Connect not conquer.”
For the Hamilton Fire Department, high-angle rope rescues have always been part of the job. Many firefighters, including all new recruits, receive training that’s updated monthly.
John Verbeek, assistant deputy fire chief, said it’s up to the city and other agencies to tell people how to behave on trails; the fire department is simply the response agency if things go wrong.
“It doesn’t matter how it happened,” he said. “The response is the same.”
Verbeek said it’s impossible to calculate how much each rope rescue costs, as the firefighters were working anyways.
When that call does happen, a team of 16 to 20 firefighters goes to the scene, said Acting District Chief Wayne Triemstra. There is always an incident commander, usually a district or platoon chief.
There is also the high-anglerope-rescue (HARR) sector, a specially trained technician and a safety officer who makes sure everyone is securely tied before going over, Triemstra said.
Once they find the patient, there are always two people on the team who anchor themselves and, using ropes, go down to assess the person and terrain. At the same time, another team secures the anchor and pulley system. Once set, the four firefighters secure the patient together.
The operation can involve helping a patient out on foot, securing them in a harness or putting them in a stretcher basket, Triemstra noted.
The nylon ropes are colour-coded — one for each rescue and basket. At the scene, firefighters also have their full first aid kit, portable lights and a wheeled carriage that can carry the stretcher basket.
Each rescue is different, with so many variables affecting how long and how they bring injured and stuck people to safety.
Four people were rescued from Greensville’s Webster Falls last weekend. The conservation authority’s Gord Costie says it won’t fence off the entire escarpment. “At some point, people need to be acountable for their own safety.”