With Memorial Day weekend viewed as the traditional opening of the summer season, water activities take center stage. In this area, one of the most popular of those activities is boating, an activity that can also present some of the most life-threatening dangers.
In an effort to prevent those dangers from turning summer fun into summer tragedy, the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department annually conducts a Boat and Water Safety Exercise. This year’s exercise took place Thursday, May 24 at Pohick Bay Regional Park by firefighters from the Gunston Station 20, Marine Operations Section.
"We are on call 24/7, year round. Boating and water safety is no longer limited to just the traditional summer months of Memorial Day to Labor Day," said Capt. James Chinn, Station 20. "With people buying larger and more expensive boats, they want to use them a lot more to get their money's worth,"
Firefighters from that station respond to an array of water-related emergencies throughout the year involving such incidents as boat collisions, persons falling overboard, mechanical failures, boat fires and boaters lost or disoriented. "Many times people in the water can't identify where they are. That is why we encourage people to carry a location beeper on their person," Chinn said.
SINCE ACQUIRING their new 36-foot Fire Boat 420 named "The Gunston Hall" three years ago, the craft is always berthed at Pohick Regional Park. When a call comes in members of the Marine Operations Team can be at the boat within two minutes from Station 20, according to Lt. Raul G. Castillo, department public information officer.
"We check the boat daily from stem to stern and we also check all the firefighting equipment on board. This is especially important during the winter when there are freezing conditions on the river," Chinn said.
Boat 420 responds to an average of 50 to 60 calls per year, according to Chinn. "The last fatal accident we responded to occurred on Dec. 6, 2006 when a victim fell into the water. It took four weeks to find his body, searching every day," he said.
"We always go out with a crew of no less than four and we try to shoot for six. Everyone at Station 20 is trained in the operations and capabilities of our fireboat," Chinn said.
LAST THURSDAY'S exercise focused on the voluntary safety inspection of a boat owned by Mike Semenec of Fairfax Station, a regular fisherman at Pohick, and the staged rescue of an in-water "victim," enacted by Firefighter Javier Lopez.
The latter exercise consisted of properly throwing a line to Lopez and bringing him on board The Gunston Hall in a safe manner. Since Boat 420 is powered by jet engines rather than props it enables rescues to work from a rear platform without the threat of propellers entangling or injuring the person being rescued or the rescuers.
"Many larger boats come equipped with a GPS location system which enables us to find them if trouble occurs. But, in the case of smaller boats we encourage boaters to use other technology such as having a VHF radio on board as well as having person location beeper on their person," Chinn said.
"I always carry my cell phone and flares, plus this boat has directional equipment and a horn," Semenec said. "We only go out for five or six hours a day and I always let people know where I am going and what time I expect to get home."
Two of the most common misconceptions about boating is that those who use boats the most are the least likely to be involved in accidents and that smaller boats are safer than large boats. In fact, "Hunters and fishermen who use boats have one of the highest boat fatality rates" and "More people die from falling off smaller boats than larger boats," according to the department's Guide To Boat and Water Safety.
TIPS OFFERED by Fairfax County Fire & Rescue Department for safe boating include the following:
* Be weather wise. A storm can come up quickly over water. Have a portable radio to check weather reports.
* Bring extra gear — a flashlight, extra batteries, matches, a map, flares, suntan lotion, first aid kit, and extra sunglasses. Put items that need to be protected in a watertight pouch or a container that floats.
* Tell someone where you are going, who is with you, and how long you expect to be gone.
* Make a thorough check of the boat before launching -- all mechanical items and safety necessities.
* Ventilate the engine compartment after refueling. Open hatches, run blower, and most importantly, carefully smell for gasoline fumes near the fuel and engine areas before starting the engine.
* Stay dry and warm. Wear several layers of light clothing and bring rain gear. Never wear hip waders in a small boat.
* Keep hunting and fishing gear well packed when not in use.
* When changing seats in a small boat stay low and near the center of the boat.
* Anchor from the bow, not the stern.
* Be ready for trouble when a power boat passes in a narrow channel.
IN GENERAL, take a safe boating course. In addition to increasing knowledge of how to avoid and deal with dangers on the water, completion of such a course may also provide a means to lower boating insurance premiums.
The two most important rules are: one, always wear a personal flotation device, commonly known as a life jacket — children younger than 13 must wear a PFD while underway in a boat — and two, know how to swim.
Don't drink alcohol and operate a boat. The probability of dying in a boating accident doubles with the use of alcohol, according to statistics. BWI [Boating While Intoxicated] is as strictly enforced as DWI and carries similar penalties.