MCFRS News Release

Dangerous Waters

Rescue Crews Get Ready for Spring/Summer Season
Remember the 4R's - Rest, Relaxation and Respect the River

County Executive Isiah Leggett wants all citizens to enjoy the public areas in and around Great Falls Park, Maryland, the adjacent C & O Canal and the shores of the Potomac River this spring and summer season. However, County Fire Chief Richard Bowers and other officials want to warn of the hazards of the majestic Potomac River and the potential dangers that exist along the many trails as it flows toward the Nation's Capital.

The air may be getting warmer as springtime has arrived, but the water is still considered cold. That's why rescue crews want to remind people of the dangers of cold water boating, fishing and hiking near the shoreline. Cold water is defined as any water with a temperature of 70 Fahrenheit or lower and it can be a real villain, especially if you unexpectedly fall in. Boaters and hikers should always be aware of the dangers of cold water, but particularly during the early part of the season when the water is colder and when there are not as many others around to help.

As it courses through the metro area the Potomac River and shoreline offers a full range of recreational opportunity for hikers, campers, fishermen and even whitewater for the active boating enthusiast. In fact, the Potomac River provides some of the finest urban whitewater in the world. However, the Great Falls area itself can very dangerous even to an experienced boater and should only be challenged by truly expert kayakers under low river conditions.

Kayakers who want to run the 'Falls', must speak with State of Maryland officials and sign a release form. (The State of Maryland has jurisdiction over the river itself and the National Park Service has jurisdiction over the shores and surrounding land). The area upstream from the Old Anglers Inn put-in on the Maryland side of the Potomac is extremely popular for novice and intermediate kayakers and canoeists. Little Falls, inside the Beltway above Chain Bridge, is a short, but challenging run for more experienced boaters. The C&O Canal adjacent to the Potomac River provides calm water for relaxed canoeing and kayaking.

Technical "swift water rescue" crews from the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, Fairfax County Fire and Rescue and the U.S. Park Police have been busier than ever the last few years.

Even though there were no drowning incidents for several years (in 2005 and 2006, 2007 and 2008), there were five (5) such incidents in 2004. The average number of actual drowning victims has declined over the years, but the volume of rescue activity has increased primarily due to popularity of the parks, outdoor activities, including various water sports and hiking. Several years ago drowning incidents averaged 8-9 annually. In addition to the average 2-3 drowning annually, dozens of people each year have needed assistance while being stranded on rocks or rescued from the water. Each year, rescue crews have deployed resources over thirty times to assist people in trouble in the water and/or injured on a trail.

The first hazards of cold water are panic and shock. The initial shock can severely strain the body and may even cause instant cardiac arrest. Survivors of cold water accidents often describe having their breath 'knocked out' of them upon their first impact with the water. Disorientation may also occur after cold water immersion. People have been observed thrashing helplessly in the water for 30 seconds or more until they were able to get their bearings.

In addition, immersion in cold water can quickly numb the extremities to the point of uselessness. Cold hands may be unable to fasten the straps of a life jacket, grasp a thrown rescue line, or hold onto a boat.


Proper preparation is important when boating on cold water. Follow these easy steps:

If you do find yourself in cold water, try not to panic. Think survival. Keep movement to a minimum and if you do have to tread water, do it slowly. This will reduce heat loss and aid retention of the air trapped inside your clothing, which can provide buoyancy and insulation. In swift water - float - point toes downstream or try to get to the closest object, a rock or log. This spring know the dangers of cold water and prepare yourself accordingly.

Montgomery County Fire Chief Richard Bowers says, "We want everyone to be aware of the danger of the currents and swift water of the Potomac River. Although the water may appear calm, the currents are often very deceiving. In other words, the currents underneath the surface often will move faster than you can see from shore. Boaters will need proper safety gear and adequate training, while hikers and fishermen should exercise care while near the shore." County Executive Leggett adds, "As beautiful and majestic as the river and the surround trails may seem at times, it can be dangerous and treacherous. However, if a visitor experiences a problem along these shores or in the river, you can be confident the men and women of the Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service, the U.S Park Police and other emergency responders will have the necessary training and resources to influence a safe and effective rescue." Remember to use a little "R & R" - "Respect the River."