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Water Safety Exercise — A Prelude to Reality

Local marine operations ready for summer activities.

With the emotional commencement of summer, marked by the Memorial Day weekend, also comes the threat of summer fun accidents. Many of these are associated with water.

In preparation for these anticipated incidents, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department, Marine Operations Team, conducted a water safety exercise last Friday at Pohick Bay Regional Park. It took on an eerie sense of reality as rain and fog made the Potomac River seem more ominous than inviting.

"Starting with Memorial Day weekend, we will be operating on the water every weekend throughout the summer," said Blair Ghent, technician, Marine Operations, as the crew of one of the department's patrol boats, the Joseph Dove, prepared to simulate a series of water rescues.

Serving as the "victim" on this not-so-springlike morning was Firefighter Brian Morton, Station 20, Gunston, which counts among its primary equipment one of the department's river patrol boats. Part of Friday's exercise called for a 30-year-old male to fall off a boat, be extricated from the water by the patrol boat, brought ashore, and transported to Inova Fairfax Hospital by ambulance.

"The dual purpose of this drill is to enhance the skills of the firefighters and to increase public knowledge about water safety," said Lt. Raul G. Castillo, departmental public information officer.

"Firefighters from the Gunston Station respond to many water-related incidents during the year, including personal water craft and boat collisions, persons falling into the water, mechanical failures, boat fires, and people lost on the river," he said. "But most cases involve people falling overboard."

AT THE PRESENT time the Gunston Station boat is kept at the station about five minutes from Pohick Bay park. In an emergency, when it is not in the water, it is rushed to the scene and can be in the river within less than 10 minutes, according to station records.

"We are trying to get a boat that is in the water 24 hours a day," Ghent said. "It wouldn't be constantly manned, but it would be in the water ready to go."

Gunston Station performs on average 175 water rescues a year, Castillo confirmed. Last year there were three drownings in the area. "None of the people who drowned were wearing life jackets," he said.

"With a water temperature at 55 to 60 degrees, if you're in the water for more than 20 minutes, you start to experience hypothermia. Then you lose the ability to control your body and swim," Castillo said.

Although he had a thermal wet suit under his street clothing, Morton (the victim in the test) testified, "The water was really chilling out there. I wondered when they were coming back to fish me out."

For the test, he had been taken from the dock in the boat. He jumped into the water and began splashing around to draw attention to himself. The boat first went approximately 200 yards downstream, then turned around and raced back to haul him back on board.

After his extrication, he was brought back to the dock, placed on a gurney, with simulated oxygen, and wheeled to an awaiting ambulance. From there he would have been rushed to the trauma center at Inova Fairfax Hospital if he had actually been a victim, according to the exercise game plan.

"Everyone at Station 20 has to be water-rescue trained," Morton explained. "We are using a different boat today because our regular one is being repaired in preparation for the summer season."

Kenneth Athing, a technician with the department's Marine Operations, pointed out that water safety is not limited to places like the Potomac River. "Retention ponds are also very dangerous, especially for children," he said.

"We have been called to many of these, as well as larger bodies of water," said Herb Knerr, technician, Technical Rescue, Station 14, Burke. "Elements that increase the danger are age — either very young or elderly, a person's general health, alcohol consumption, and the wind chill factor," he added.

According to the National Safety Council, drowning claims approximately 4,000 lives each year. It is the third cause of accidental death in the United States.