When Cst. Mitchell Coffin heard the dispatch room at the Fort Saskatchewan RCMP detachment get quiet, he knew something was amiss. The silence was unusual for the bustling detachment, which sits just north of Edmonton, Alta.
"When I looked at the operator, she was focused," he says. "I figured something big was coming in, so I stood by and listened."
Coffin heard there was a woman in distress — possibly suicidal — who was about to jump into the North Saskatchewan River. As soon as the call for service came through the radio, Coffin hopped in a police car and made his way to the river.
Cst. Jared Winslow, the watch commander in charge that night, immediately took control of the situation. He worked with dispatchers to get as much information as possible from the woman's family who called in the emergency.
"My job was to quarterback the call from the office for as long as I could," he says. "We needed someone looking at a map to determine where the access points to the river were."
Winslow relayed information about the woman to the officers in the field. Then, he heard over the radio that one of his men was in the water.
"At that point I decided I wasn't doing any good in the office — I needed to get out there."
A strong current
When Cst. Mark McChesney heard a call on the radio for a suicidal woman near the river, he knew just the place to start looking. A nearby park was a popular spot for many residents to walk, but the river was located down a precarious slope.
Upon arriving, he spotted another RCMP officer who had come in from the neighbouring Redwater detachment. The officer shouted and pointed towards the river — the woman was there. Without thinking twice, McChesney slid down the treacherously steep embankment to reach the woman.
McChesney had radioed the other officers, warning them that the woman was coming downstream, but once in the deep ravine, his radio signal was obstructed.
By the time he reached the shore, the woman was already halfway into the river. He jumped in the water but the current was moving too swiftly for him to keep up. He saw her lean backwards until she was floating and watched the current carry her away.
"I tried to navigate and keep eyes on her, I left the water and started jogging down the shoreline," says McChesney. "She was angry at a certain person and kept yelling his name."
After hearing McChesney had located the woman but was now unaccounted for, Coffin rushed to the park where he was last seen. He and another officer, Cst. Ann Grant, stripped off their heavy equipment and headed down the embankment.
"Our job is to be first responders and preserve life, but it really hits home when you don't know the status of one of your team members," says Coffin.
After several stressful minutes, they found McChesney running parallel to the woman on shore. The three officers worked together to keep eyes on the woman who was now struggling to keep her head above water.
With everyone accounted for, Coffin climbed back up the slope until his radio could transmit. He confirmed McChesney was safe and relayed the location of the woman to the other officers downstream. This vital communication allowed Winslow and another officer, Cst. Patrick Bigelow, to get ahead of the woman.
Saving a life
By now, every available police officer from the detachment was at the river. Winslow and Bigelow called out to the woman, who was crying for help and saying she couldn't swim back to shore.
"What went through my mind was, 'this is my job, and this is what needs to get done,'" says Winslow, who has lifeguard training. "So I jumped in the water. She was very out of breath when we brought her back to shore."
At this point, emergency services had arrived. They assessed the woman and took her to a nearby hospital — she was safe and would recover. Then paramedics also made sure each of the eight officers involved in the rescue were OK.
"Without every single member doing what they did, we wouldn't have had the same outcome," says Winslow. "Everyone played a part and it saved a life."