Cries of help can be heard from beneath the overturned hull of a vessel in St. Catharines.
Const. Neil Lockwood of the Ottawa Police Service dive unit swims in the chilly 12°C water towards the sound.
“I can hear you. I am here to help you,” he calls, as he squeezes through a window-sized opening and into a small crawl space out of view.
“You ok buddy? You sure? I’m going to give you the air tank.”
A few minutes later, Lockwood emerges with the grateful victim. He’s told by a supervisor to go back and save the man again — this time without a spotlight shining into the water. And the victim will put up a struggle this time.
The underwater scenario is being played out in the Niagara Regional Police overturned vessel training tank, a new tool for the force’s police divers to experience what it’s like to perform a rescue in cramped conditions.
“It’s as close to real-life training as you can get,” said Sgt. Bill Wiley, in charge of the marine and underwater search and recovery unit.
The $13,000 tank is a modified shipping container, an idea born from Wiley trying to come up with a way to train drivers for rescues underneath overturned boats.
It’s the only training tool of its kind in Ontario.
“You can’t replicate this in a public pool,” Wiley said.
In use since December, the training tank is inside the NRP’s St. Catharines emergency support services building and is filled almost to the top with water. A large section of the container does not have a lid, but a small chamber on the end — where the victim is waiting — is entirely enclosed except for that small window-size opening.
It makes for a claustrophobic experience for the rescuer and the victim.
“Once you see that ray of light, it’s a sigh of relief, even on a training scenario,” said Const. Marc Garrels, a member of the NRP’s dive unit for four years, and on this day, its trapped victim.
He said every time he’s in the tank he learns something different and gets something new out of the experience.
Garrels was in the water helping train three members of the Ottawa service who were using the tank for the first time.
“Being from Ottawa, we appreciate the opportunity to train here. Having a chance to do this is amazing for us,” said Const. Marty Dompierre, part a unit tasked with rescues on the Ottawa River and Rideau River.
“It definitely feels very realistic,” said Const. Alana Fong, who was acting as the second diver during Lockwood’s scenario, feeling the tension in the lines between them. If the radio communications were to conk out, the pair would communicate using line signals.
“It’s different to just dive, than work through a scenario,” she said.
The NRP’s eight-member underwater search and recovery unit has been hosting a training course for police drivers from six teams across Ontario this week. The four-day training includes using the overturned vessel tank, learning to repair police diving equipment and using underwater SONAR in the Welland Recreational Canal.
The NRP’s unit does all of its own training for its members and its technicians are in house.
Wiley said the Niagara service has the largest amount of waterways of any municipality in Ontario, including two Great Lakes, hydro generating station waters and the Welland Canal.
“It’s a big area. It’s incident rich,” Wiley said. “There’s a lot going on.”
The unit is also unique because NRP divers are trained to support the tactical unit.
But it’s not easy to recruit officers to do a job that involves being underwater and performing rescues on ice.
“Diving’s not for everybody. It’s a hard job. It’s a dangerous job,” Wiley said. “They’re a very rare breed.”