Marine rescue gets a big jump in Penticton

They're big, sleek and fast, and they are going to improve safety on both our lakes for visitors and residents alike.

Firefighters Steve Garret and Chad Taylor manoeuvre the new watercraft back to the dock and a waiting Fire Chief Larry Watkinson after putting the new rescue units through their paces.

Firefighters Steve Garret and Chad Taylor manoeuvre the new watercraft back to the dock and a waiting Fire Chief Larry Watkinson after putting the new rescue units through their paces.

They’re big, sleek and fast, and they are going to improve safety on both lakes for visitors and residents alike.

On Friday, the Penticton Fire Department unveiled the latest addition to their life-saving gear, a pair of personal watercraft to be permanently stationed on Skaha Lake.

Deputy Fire Chief Dave Spalding said the new water rescue units should cut down on the department’s response time to incidents on the lake by about seven minutes on each call. Instead of having to trailer a boat to the lake, back it down the ramp, unload it, get it started, run back and park the truck, board and clear the marina, responders will simply be able to unlock the new units and head out.

Seven minutes might not seem like a long-time, but for someone in distress on the water, it could literally be a lifetime.

Fire Chief Larry Watkinson said they expect the new three-seater watercraft to be crewed by two firefighters each, leaving room to pull someone aboard, or onto the six-foot platform that attaches to the back of the unit, giving them room to administer aid.

“I think it is a great enhancement. The sooner they get on the water and deal with the situation the better,” said Penticton Mayor Andrew Jakubeit, who also praised Watkinson for finding room within the fire department’s existing budget to purchase the watercraft.

“I think it’s impressive. This is a great example of looking within his budget to find some efficiencies or make things happen,” said Jakubeit.

The watercraft are fast, with 1800cc engines driving them up to 55 miles per hour, but these models were chosen for stability and manoeuvrability.

“The hull is the biggest we could get for more stability. If you have to pull somebody out of the water that needs rescuing, you don’t want to be flipping the thing over and ending up in the water yourself,” said Spalding.

The watercraft also have a braking system for quick stops and capable of fine side-to-side manoeuvring.

“You want to be able to stop and manoeuvre while you are managing that victim, whether they are conscious or unconscious,” said Spalding.

Firefighters testing out the units Friday also took them for a cruise up the Okanagan River Channel to test the watercraft’s low-wake mode. Spalding said they caused very little disturbance to people enjoying their Friday afternoon float.

“With our big boat, it’s just not doable,” said Spalding. “There is so much wake you end up flipping people off their rafts and stuff, even if you try to go slow. It is just too much.”

With the new watercraft stationed on Skaha Lake, the fire department is now able to station its existing, bigger rescue boat on Okanagan Lake. Watkinson said that is the best place for it, since the bigger boat is better able to handle the chop on the big lake.

“We are really happy that we can have rescue capabilities on both lakes, without having to trailer them,” said Spalding.

Two drownings on Skaha Lake earlier this year got the department looking at ways to improve the response time, according to Watkinson. He also got some ideas from Hawaiian firefighters.

Read more: Drowning highlights need for safety on Penticton lakes

“I have some relatives in Hawaii, and I got to know some of the Hawaii firefighters that do all the water rescue,” said Watkinson. “They showed me their marine rescue units. With the channel and all of the people that are in the channel all the time in the summer, it is an easy way to access without wake and get to people in a rapid fashion.

“They are just an absolute, excellent addition to our marine rescue program.”