It sounds comfortable in air, but water temperatures below 70 degrees — typical for the Potomac this time of year — can wick away the warmth from a person and knock the breath from their lungs, said Pete Piringer of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service.
Members of the County’s Swift Water Rescue team put on a demonstration of rescue techniques they use when pulling people out of the river. “Over the past couple of years, we’ve had about 100 responses,” Piringer said. “About 40 involved putting the boats into the water.”
The number of drownings has decreased in recent years, Piringer said. When the Swift water team was formed in the early 90s, there would be an average of eight or nine per year, but in recent years, that number has decreased to one or two. (see sidebar) One of the most important things to remember is to remain calm, Piringer said. Upon falling into cold water, victims can succumb to panic and shock. “The shock of falling in the water unexpectedly will take your breath away,” Piringer said.
Some victims have gone into shock and have cardiac arrest after falling into the water. Also, there is a physiological response after falling in which causes a person’s windpipe to constrict. While this can prevent a person from inhaling water, it also make it difficult to breathe until the body adjusts. “The main problem everybody experiences is panic,” Piringer said.
Breathing will return if a person remains calm. Piringer also advises people not to move around too much. “You’ll actually lose body heat, Piringer said.
He said the best course of action is to try to float, toes pointed downstream. “Protect your head,” Piringer said. “Try to steer yourself into a calm area.”
He explained that even though the weather warms up the water temperature in the Potomac River will remain cold. “There will be areas of the water that will warm up, but generally speaking, it’s all considered cold water,” Piringer said.
People who are with someone who falls in are advised not to jump in after them, but instead to throw in something to help them. “Throw, don’t go,” Piringer said.
He also said to use a cell phone and call immediately. The sooner a person calls, the quicker the rescue team can respond.
Piringer attributes the decline in drownings in recent years to people who have called on their cell phones. Not only are responses quicker, but cell callers can help direct rescuers to the right spot. “Calling right away is very important,” Piringer said.
<1b>— Ari Cetron