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Swift Water, Fast Rescues

Summer marks the peak season for rescues along the Potomac River.

It has been more than two years since there has been a drowning fatality on the part of the Potomac River patrolled by local authorities. That is no coincidence.

After nine people drowned between 2000 and 2004, four of which occurred in 2004, the agencies responsible for rescues in the Potomac River Gorge came together to see what could be done to prevent that from happening again.

“We put together a taskforce and brought everyone together,” said Pete Piringer, a spokesperson for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue.

Jurisdictional boundaries between the United States Park Police, the National Park Service, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue, and to a limited degree the District of Columbia Fire and EMS, DC Harbor Patrol and DC Police — the agencies that oversee rescue operations in the area — were clarified. The two Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department stations serve as the base for swiftwater rescues.

Communication between the agencies was improved. Identifications for different locations along the river were made universal; previously the different agencies referred to different locations along the river by different names.

The improved coordination between the agencies has facilitated communication, as has popularization of the mobile phone.

“You used to have to run to Old Angler’s [Inn], pop a quarter in and use the payphone,” said Piringer. Mobile phones have done more than just cut down on the time it takes to report an emergency, Piringer said, as callers can more accurately describe their surroundings.

“Cell phones have saved a lot of lives out here,” said T.S. Neider, the Captain of the U.S. Park Police.

Improved communication between both those in need of rescue and those who do the rescuing has resulted in increased calls for service have increased over the last several years, while deaths on the river have gone down, Piringer said.

MANY OF the 30 to 40 rescues that take place each year in the Potomac Gorge — the area between Key Bridge in Washington, D.C. and north to the Aqueduct Dam above Great Falls — involve hikers who fall and injure themselves along the Billy Goat Trail on the Maryland side of Great Falls National Park, Piringer said.

“A lot of times it’s easier just to take them down to the water and take them out by boat instead of trying to carry them back through the park,” said Michele Ruth, a firefighter with Montgomery County Fire and Rescue.

Though experienced hikers are not immune to such circumstances, those rescued tend to be less experienced.

“Sometimes you get somebody who’s not as experienced and they get themselves into a situation,” said Piringer.

“A lot of times it’s just ankles and knees, but every once in a while…,” said Keith Federroll, a firefighter with Montgomery County Fire and Rescue.

No mater the circumstance, there are no textbook rescues.

“There is no ‘usual’ about it, really,” Piringer said.

Rescue boats called out in such emergencies are operated by a driver and have one crew member that operates as a spotter, said Federroll. Often a Stokes Basket, a backboard surrounded by a steel-tube cage, is used to carry down injured hikers.

If rescuers know that someone is floating down the river toward them, a compressed air canister onboard each boat can inflate a fire hose that rescuers will stretch across the river to serve as a dragnet.

“That’s the ‘Eagle,’” Federoll said, pointing toward a U.S. Park Police helicopter that flew low overhead during a simulated rescue on Thursday, May 24. “Any call we get on the river, they’re here.”

The helicopters are there to monitor rescues and will carry out those critically injured.

That includes night rescues, during which the helicopters do their best to spotlight the rescue scene. Night rescues offer a unique set of challenges, Federroll said.

“You’ve just got to go a lot slower,” Federroll said of driving rescue boats through the river. The spotlight from the helicopter, while helpful, isn’t exactly constant as the ‘Eagle’ struggles to hover precisely.

“One minute it’s lit up, the next you’re completely in the dark,” Federroll said.