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At Night, on the River

Practice and More Practice — Just in Case

Six construction workers from the Woodrow Wilson Bridge Project plunged into the pitch-dark waters of the Potomac River last Tuesday night as a result of a construction accident.

It wasn't real, but only a scenario faced by Alexandria Fire Department's Marine Operation Team as it embarked on a night drill just north of the bridge. All "victims" were successfully rescued.

In conducting the two-hour exercise, the team used three boats, each with a three- or four-person crew. It responded to the call from the city boathouse at the foot of Madison Street and the city dock behind the Torpedo Factory.

The object of the night exercise was to test the team's capabilities in the areas of victim identification and accountability, personnel accountability, patient care, rescue techniques, and safety and speed of operations.

Throughout the exercise, Lt. Michael Cross, assistant training officer, was posting personnel and victim accountability on a chart situated next to the water. During deployment at the scene of any incident, personnel accountability is essential, the department emphasized.

In briefing the crews before they took to the water, Battalion Chief Chet Helms, who heads up the department's Marine Operations, reminded them, "Boats don't make rescues; you make rescues. Boats are just transportation."

EACH OF THE victims had on a white helmet so he could be spotted in the dark waters. In addition to the three rescue boats — two Zodiac inflatables and one hard bottom, known as Boat 200 — the crews were assisted by high-intensity lights attached to the end of an extended 100-foot ladder from Truck 204 parked at the water's edge.

Following the rescue, both crews and their victims went through a debriefing to assess the various elements of the operation.

"The whole aim of the drill is to test the team's ability to operate at night," said Jane Malik, the department's public information officer.

Even though river rescue is technically under the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia and the U.S. Coast Guard, the Alexandria Fire Department initiated the development of its Waterfront Operations Team in 1997. It was later renamed the Marine Operations Team (MOT) "to better reflect the multiple roles they play," according to the department.

MOT WORKS OUT of two fire stations, 201 on Prince Street and 204 Second St. with their Zodiac boats, as well as with Boat 200, which is berthed at the city dock. It is a 23-foot, center-console, hard-bottom vessel designed to perform rescues in heavier seas and can be utilized to help other vessels in distress.

The inflatable Zodiacs can be deployed rapidly in all weather conditions and can reach persons in distress more quickly. They also can be employed to assist in deploying containment booms in cases of hazardous material spills.

The MOT is composed of 34 members, plus Helms. They are trained as marine firefighters, swift-water-rescue technicians, lifeguards, boat operators and crew members. Recently, seven paramedics were added to the MOT in order to have medical assistance available to patients as soon as the medics arrive on the scene of an incident, according to Brian Hricik, EMS supervisor, who participated in the night drill.

MOT members routinely train with members of jurisdictions in the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments and the Potomac River Rescue Association. Departmental regulations require MOT members to attend at least 24 hours of continuing education per year to remain members of the team.

As part of that training, MOT members now go through what is known as swift-water-rescue training. They will participate in such an exercise later this month in the Great Falls section of the river. The term “swift water” not only applies to areas such as Great Falls but also to flood conditions and most particularly flash floods.