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River Safety, Job Security

River rescue team gives pointers on safety on and near the Potomac River.

Bryan Duffer and Clark Oliver aren’t men obsessed with job security, but they’re vigilant for signs of it when they patrol the Potomac River. They rarely fail to find it. Each time they’re out on the Potomac, it’s a pretty safe bet they’ll see somebody doing something dangerous. Last Wednesday, they pointed to a young man on Bear Island who was sprinting beside cliffs more than 20 feet above the river.

“There’s somebody we’ll be rescuing,” Oliver said.

“Job security, right there,” said Duffer.

Duffer and Oliver are both members of the Montgomery County River Rescue and Swift Water Tactical Support Team. Much of their “job security” isn’t in the water, but rather on the riverbanks. A majority of their rescues are of people on Section A of the Billy Goat Trail, the closest portion to Great Falls.

In some ways, Section A of the Billy Goat Trail is like the river beside it – it’s much more difficult than it may seem to a novice. The trail is smooth for a while, its length (1.7 miles) seems manageable, and it even has a cute name. Despite ample warning from signs at either end of the trail, many hikers aren’t daunted.

“Before they know it, they’re going vertical,” Oliver said. “Then somebody turns an ankle … and they’re immobilized.”

That happens twice a week, Oliver estimates, and probably more during the peak visitation season at C&O Canal National Historical Park, which is just beginning. “The first warm weekend of the spring,” Oliver said, “we may as well park our boats here.”

“Be aware of your capability. Don’t overestimate, because that’s not an easy trail,” said Pete Piringer, spokesperson for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service.

Last year was slower than usual for the river rescue team. Piringer estimated that they put the boats in the water between 30 and 35 times in 2005. In a more typical year, they’ll deploy the boats anywhere from 40 to 60 times. There was not a single drowning in the 12-mile stretch of the Potomac that Cabin John patrols last year. A decade ago, eight or nine drownings occurred in a typical year.

Increasing popularity of cell phones in the past decade has helped, Oliver said. Many people in emergency situations are able to place emergency calls almost immediately. Newer cell phones have global positioning devices, and Oliver believes the next step will be people being able to describe their exact location to rescue personnel.

Another trend that has helped, said Oliver, is the establishment of a Billy Goat Trail Stewards program over the past two years. “Those guys are great. They wind up finding a lot of the [injured] guys quickly,” said Oliver, and the stewards know the parts of the trail where people most frequently get hurt.

“JOB SECURITY” also comes from people who underestimate the power of the Potomac River. Water is very powerful, and the Potomac in particular has dangerously strong currents and undertows, many of which are invisible to somebody in a boat or on the shore.

“The water looks very, very placid, but that’s very misleading,” said Strike Team member Clark Oilver. Rotating currents and undertows are on both banks of the Potomac. “It’s all hidden beneath this very pretty facade,” Duffer said.

Rock-hopping along the Potomac shoreline may seem like innocent fun, but is exceptionally dangerous, Duffer and Oliver said. “It takes nothing to slip,” said Duffer. “The water is moving, and it doesn’t look like it. … They’re just swept right out into the current, and they’re done.”

The Potomac River, with temperatures sometimes below 70 degrees, is technically a cold water river. “If you fall in that river, it’s going to take your breath away,” Piringer said.

The Potomac River has all six classes of rapids in a three-mile stretch, Duffer said. Even the most seasoned rescue veteran can’t memorize it all. “From moment to moment it changes,” Oliver said.

The Potomac’s varied rapids makes it attractive to whitewater boaters. Perhaps surprisingly, the kayakers don’t provide much “job security” for the river rescuers.

“Generally, we don’t have to rescue the kayakers,” Oliver said. For one thing, kayakers have a boat. They also tend to be out in groups, and often self-rescue. For the most part, said Piringer, kayaking groups have done their part to increase their members’ safety — they know first-hand about the river’s power, and rarely take on more extreme situations than they can handle.

With summer approaching and many locals looking for “rest and relaxation,” Piringer suggested that those on the Potomac riverbanks add two more R’s to their itinerary. “The overall theme is ‘Respect for the River,’” he said.