Out on the river and in trouble? Look to the "Earl Kane" for rescue operations.
A 25-foot Boston Whaler powered by twin 150 horsepower outboard engines, this workhorse of Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Station 20 has been coming to the aid of Potomac River boaters since 1986.
From Memorial Day to Labor Day it is in the water every weekend and holiday.
Each of the firefighters assigned to Station 20 at 10417 Gunston Road, takes their turn in patrolling the 20 mile area from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge to the Occoquan River, according to Captain James M. Chinn.
"We come across a lot of disabled boaters who haven't done their safety checks before heading out," Chinn said. "Just last weekend one 21-footer sank due to overheating and melting bellows. We had to pull the same guy out a year and a half ago for the same thing. You'd think he'd learn after losing one boat."
Named for the first Fairfax County firefighter to lose his life in the line of duty while trying to save a child who had fallen through the ice on the river in 1968, the Earl Kane can cover its patrol area in 18 minutes when operating at full throttle.
"We are seeing an increasing number of jet ski/boat accidents as well as more accidents involving boaters who don't understand the dangers of hitting wakes at too high a speed," Chinn explained. Conversely, he noted that accidents involving water skiers has decreased.
"Hitting wakes at high speed is particularly dangerous to boat passengers," according to Chinn. "Recently we had a woman passenger who was thrown into the air and broke her back when she landed in the boat. The anchor had also come loose, due to the bounce, and impaled itself in her leg."
WHEN THE COUNTY'S BOAT is out on the water there is always a crew of three on board. Every member of Station 20 is qualified to operate the Earl Kane.
During a demonstration run last week Chinn was joined on board by firefighters Robert Potter, Jr., a 21 year veteran, and Brian Morton, an eight year firefighter. "Potter is usually the first to go into the water if that becomes necessary because he's the tallest and can stand up in many areas of the river," Chinn said.
Although the channel averages 25 to 40 feet in depth with some spots going to 70 feet, there were many areas, particularly in Pohick Bay and Gunston Cove, where the water is only four to five feet deep, Chinn noted.
"People will drive their boats into these areas and get stuck. We give an awful lot of free advice on how to be a responsible boater," Potter said. "Most problems are caused by a lack of boating knowledge."
Potter has been at Station 20 for nine and a half years. "We're the busiest when the weather changes and storms blow up. Every year I've been in storms once or twice a year," he said.
Chinn comes from a firefighter family. His father, a 30-year veteran, was at Penn Daw and one of the first three battalion chiefs for Fairfax County. "I started riding with my dad in the 50's. There's a picture of me in a car seat in Engine 11 in 1958 or 1959," Chinn recalled.
GROWING UP IN Groveton, Chinn started as a volunteer firefighter at Penn Daw and became a paid firefighter in 1975. The water unit started at Gunston that same year. Boats were initiated into the department in the 1950's.
Presently, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue has two marine units, Gunston and at Station 11, Penn Daw. The latter goes out only on incidents, not regular patrol, Chinn explained. It is a 22-foot Boston Whaler but it has no enclosed cabin.
"These boats can handle just about anything. But, you have to assess each situation as it occurs. You look at the conditions for the crew and their exposure," he explained.
Although most of the river operations are during the warmer months, the Earl Kane is ready to go out 12 months a year. "We've had quite a few winter calls," Chinn noted. "Boats are getting bigger and more expensive and people are using them year round."
He recalled, "Last year we went out on Christmas Eve at dinner time to pick up a stranded boater. His boat had broken down and he had drifted up into the Occoquan River. Winter missions are rougher for us because we don't have any heat on board."
Chinn noted how during that mission the Earl Kanes's windshield was covered with ice and the LCD directional equipment froze. The boat is equipped with radar and GPS geared to a chart of the river.
"During the summer months, we normally patrol from 8 a.m. to about 10 p.m. on weekends and holidays," Chinn explained. "But we have been out as late as 3 a.m. The boat is taken back to the station every night. We can have it from there to full power in the water in six minutes."
EVEN THOUGH MOST of their calls are breakdown distress missions, they average three to four fatal accidents a year, Chinn revealed.
"Most of the fatals are drownings. A lot are fisherman because they are out on the water before it is warm and if you go in then there is real threat of hypothermia," he cautioned.
"Virginia does not require any boating education. Maryland and the District do. And there is no age limit in Virginia for operating a boat. The age to operate a personal water craft, like a jet ski, is only 16, but you can be any age to operate a boat," Chinn said. "Some local marinas are now offering boat education if you buy from them."
By contrast the firefighters of Station 20 go through an intensive boating course. They must be thoroughly familiar with the contents of both the publications, "Boat Virginia: A course on Responsible Boating" and the "Virginia Watercraft Owner's Guide," both published by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries.
They also are trained on the Earl Kane. This not only encompasses how to operate the boat but also how to handle patients and victims, night operations, and bad weather conditions.
One of the toughest assignments is to search for people who fall into the water. "A lot of people on boats do not wear flotation gear," Potter said. "And an awful lot has to do with when they fall into the water, what time of year. Exposure is very dangerous."
ANOTHER COMMON PROBLEM for the Station 20 crew is people who go out at night and lose their bearings. "It's easy to get confused out there," according to Chinn. "Many don't have navigational devices. You should at least carry a cell phone to call for help."
But, Station 20 isn't only about the Earl Kane and its river mission. They also fight conventional fires throughout their area of responsibility.
One of the non-river related challenges faced by Station 20 over the years is not having local water supplies to fight fires up and down Gunston Road. They had to rely on their supply tankers.
"We are now getting a water main from the station to Gunston Hall," Chinn said. "It is slated to go all the way to the river eventually.
"We had some input into the design so we had them put in a hydrant at the entrance to every subdivision. That will mean 20 additional hydrants. The first phase of the project is to be done in a year, but they are running ahead of schedule."
As the Earl Kane headed for home last Wednesday afternoon, back up Pohick Bay, it passed a large submerged wooden pole. Pointing it out, Chinn noted, "That's another reason people need to know what boating is all about. Even the best can sink if they ram something like that."