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Marine Unit

Lifeguards - History

The present day Toronto Police Lifeguard Service and the Toronto Police Marine Unit can trace their roots back to the Toronto Life Saving & Police Patrol Service, a department of the Toronto Harbour Commissioners that again can trace its roots to the THC's predecessor, the Commissioners of the Harbour of Toronto (commonly known as the Harbour Trust, incorporated 1850).

A lifeguard rowboat moored to the shore

The Harbour trust was primarily responsible for harbour safety, providing harbour markers, lighting, and lifesaving (for which it purchased its first a lifesaving boat in 1857). However, it was left to volunteers of the Toronto Life Saving Crew, and other short-lived volunteer crews to provide lifesaving service within the harbour. Although the City assumed responsibility for the lifesaving boat, it was the Dominion government that purchased new lifesaving boats in 1894 and again in 1909.

The federal government also built a lifesaving station at Ward's Island, manned by a volunteer crew, under Captain W. Ward, Sr. The Toronto Harbour Commissioners Act of 1911, which replaced the Harbour Trust. The THC appointed constables to enforce its by-laws, marine statutes and regulations.

Yet it was lifesaving, not law enforcement that was a more immediate concern. During a visit by government ministers later in 1911 the Commissioners pointed out the urgent need for adequate lifesaving stations (and crew) in the harbour. Consequently, Commander Henry Thompson, Superintendent of the Dominion Life Saving Service submitted a plan to the Commissioners for the formation of such a crew whose duties would include lifesaving, the supervision of lifesaving appliances, and patrolling the harbour. At this time the cost of the Life Saving Service was shared equally among the Dominion government, the City, and the THC.

The first paid crew was on duty during the 1912 season. This arrangement continued, with the Service under the direction of the Life Saving Service for Canada, the THC being responsible for its daily operations, and its cost shared among the three administrations. In 1919 the federal government reasoned that the service should be put under the control of the City, since it was being used more for lifesaving and police work, than for the protection of the mercantile marine, which was a federal responsibility.

Lifeguard standing in front of a lifesaving station on the beach

Despite this the federal government and the THC continued to contribute towards the cost of the service. In 1920 the Toronto Life Saving & Police Patrol Service came into being, moving from being a section of the Harbour Master's department, to becoming its own department under the administration of E.L. Cousins, Chief Engineer and Manager. Austin P. Saunders was the first Superintendent of this new department. The City assumed the entire cost of the TLS & PP Service beginning in 1921 after the federal government and the THC cancelled their grants. Thus, the Toronto Life Saving & Police Patrol Service came to be operated by the THC, at the expense of the City of Toronto.

The Service was administered by a Superintendent with a staff which changed with the years, but included patrol officers and engineers of various ranks, motorboat crewmen, lifeguards, appliance inspectors, lead hands, clerks and assistants. Superintendent Saunders was replaced by Hillyard Dixon Lang in 1923. The Service is described as being reorganized and 'renamed' in 1951 when it became known as the Toronto Harbour Police. However, the official name remained the same. The most significant change appears to have been the start of continuous patrols of the harbour. When Superintendent Lang died suddenly in 1953 he was replaced by George Ragen. A scuba diving unit to handle underwater search and rescue was formed in 1960.

In what has been described as a gradual integration of certain functions with the Harbour Master's department, TLS & PP Service staff manned the Toronto Harbour Communications Centre in the THC administration building beginning in the 1960s. The Centre received, monitored and distributed via teletype and radio, information about ships' positions and movements, and notified appropriate officials in the event of vessel accidents, fires, etc.

In response to increased thefts and pilferage on the docks, the Port Police, a land-based police force was formed in 1966 to deal specifically with security and law enforcement in the port. Joseph E. Thurston was the first Chief of this force. In a move to bring together the administration of the two police forces, Robert Cornish, took overall command of the Toronto Port and Toronto Harbour Police in 1975, with Ernest Norrey the superintendent of the Harbour Police, and Ross Wren the superintendent of the Port Police. By 1979 it was determined that there was a duplication and overlap of services in the harbour due to the activities of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force.

Among the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Metropolitan Toronto (the "Robarts Report"), was that law enforcement and policing on Lake Ontario within Metro's boundaries be assigned to the Metropolitan Police Department, and the policing of the port remain the responsibility of the THC. Finally, in 1982 the THC ceased operation of the Port Police and the Harbour Police, and harbour safety became the responsibility of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Force Marine Unit, headed by Cornish. Security in the port was assumed by the THC's new Port Security Department, staffed by ten civilians.

In general, the Service was responsible for harbour safety, lifesaving and enforcing marine statutes and regulations, including THC by-laws. Patrolmen were empowered to lay charges when necessary. In the early years, Service employees also recorded all ship arrivals and departures, and the speed of vessels in the harbour. Typically, during navigation season crews of the TLS & PP Service patrolled the harbour, checked and replaced lifesaving appliances, lights, beacons and buoys, and removed obstructions in the water which might be dangerous to navigation.

Lifeguard on a rescue board

The Service manned lifesaving stations, and hired, trained and supervised lifeguard crews for the beaches, the Toronto Island, and outdoor pools near the harbour. Service employees issued boat licences, completed water temperature and meteorological reports, and responded to calls for assistance from ships, swimmers, recreational boaters and the occasional downed aircraft.

The TLS & PP Service also assisted other jurisdictions in Ontario with water rescues when called upon. Crewmen conducted drills and training sessions, searched for persons reported or suspected as being missing on the water, transported those in trouble to the mainland, administered first aid and resuscitation, and retrieved floating bodies, and abandoned (stolen) watercraft. Police patrol boats were called upon to be ready to render assistance during harbour swimming competitions, regattas, and air shows. Police boats also escorted ships with visiting dignitaries.

Beginning in the 1960s TLS & PP Service employees manning the Communications Centre received, monitored and distributed information about ships in the harbour. The Service was busy during the winter months repairing and overhauling boats, making repairs to equipment, marking areas of unsafe ice in the harbour and on Grenadier and Catfish Ponds, warning skaters and others of dangerous ice conditions, performing rescues and generally giving assistance when needed.

The TLS & PP later became known as the Metropolitan Toronto Police Marine Unit which employed the same seasonal Lifeguards and crews to assist in the patrolling of the Harbour of Toronto. The MTP & MTP Lifeguard Service changed to the Toronto Police Service and Toronto Police Lifeguard Service in 1997.

Currently the Toronto Police Lifeguard Service employs eighty (80) lifeguards and thirteen (13) Head-Lifeguards across the Harbour of Toronto. These Lifeguards have been broken into 4 Lifeguard Platoons that in turn are responsible for the supervision of seven (7) main stretches of beach across the harbour of Toronto. These beaches cover 11.9 km of Toronto's waterfront and the TPLS covers a visual area of 59.5 square kilometers.

NOTE: The Toronto Life Saving & Police Patrol Service was also casually known as the Life Saving Service; Toronto Lifesaving Service & Police Patrol; Harbour Patrol, Metro Toronto Police Lifeguard Service and the Toronto Police Lifeguard Service.