MCFRS News Release

Dangerous Waters: Rescue Crews Get Ready for Spring/Summer Season

In an effort to focus attention on the dangers of the Potomac River Gorge, and in light of the six drowning deaths that occurred in 2009, federal, county and local agencies and private organizations have cooperatively joined forces to renew collective efforts focusing public attention on the inherent dangers of the 14-mile stretch of the Potomac River and to emphasize the importance of safety and responsibility at all times around the Potomac 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 Potomac River and the potential dangers that exist along the many trails as it flows toward the Nation’s Capital. 

Cold water, unpredictable weather, debris in the water and high river flows all require special precautions and 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 is considered dangerous and can quickly rob the body of its strength, diminish coordination and impair judgment. 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. 

As it courses through the metro area the Potomac River and shoreline offers a full range of recreational opportunities for hikers, campers, fishermen 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 consult 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.

Up until April 26, 2009, there hadn’t been an accidental drowning in the Potomac River Gorge since 2004. In 2004, five people accidentally drowned in the river and local jurisdictions banded together to raise awareness about the dangers of the Potomac River. In 2009, six people drowned in the river. The average number of actual drowning victims has declined over the years, however 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.    

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:

Always wear your life jacket when on the water. It is extremely difficult to put on a life jacket in cold water.

Always tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return. When taking the boat out early in the season, and especially when hunting and fishing, form a group and take several boats along. Take a cellphone.

Dress properly for the cold. Several layers of light clothing offer better protection than a single heavy layer. Next to a diver’s wet suit, wool clothing offers the best protection.

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 surrounding 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 for a safe and effective rescue.”

See related: Trail Safety