When Montgomery County Fire and Rescue services make a Potomac River water rescue, it's usually to help someone on land.
Signs near the C&O Canal park entrance at Angler’s Inn mark the Billy Goat trail as one of the most strenuous in the area, but each year warnings are ignored by visitors making it the most prevalent reason Montgomery County’s firefighters are called for water rescues.
According to the National Park Service, the first section of the trail “marked with blue colored blazes on trees and rocks, is a 1.7-mile trail over extremely difficult and dangerous terrain.” Inexperienced or unfit hikers are urged to chose a different trail. Still, not everyone heeds these warnings.
“We’ve seen everything from 80-year-old grandmothers to women in high heels on the trail,” said swift water rescue trainer Lt. Peter Cacopardo.
MCFRS is often called to assist exhausted or injured park visitors, and getting to the victim is usually easier by water than by land. Occasionally rescues for victims in the water also come in.
The Potomac Paddlers volunteer group warns park visitors of the dangers of swimming in the river, dangers that often go unnoticed.
“People die swimming in the Potomac River at medium and low water when you can’t see the danger,” Paul Schaub told CBS news. And it’s not the boaters or kayakers at the greatest risk, but people just looking to swim in the Potomac, he said.
A sign posted by the entrance of Angler's warns swimmers that seven fatalities have occurred in the last 16 months.
On Friday, MCFRS responded to a call near the Virginia side of the river where a visitor had . The victim was swept down the waterfall, and was found clinging to a rock. He had no obvious injuries and refused EMS transport, according to MCFRS spokesperson Beth Anne Nesselt.
Despite the drama of Friday’s incident, call numbers this year have remained relatively low, in part because of lower water levels.
“This year has been fairly quiet. Some years you’re on the water every day,” said David DeVore, a career firefighter with the county for 14 years.
According to DeVore, inexperience and exhaustion play a major part in the calls the force makes.
“Water moves completely differently from what you see on the surface. Inexperienced swimmers can tire out quickly,” he said. “A lot of people tend to underestimate this water. Once you start to panic or lose focus of trying to think your way through it, you’ve lost the battle.”
The Potomac River is technically in Maryland and due to geography, MCFRS is often one of the first teams to the river – also watched by the U.S. Park Police, Park Rangers, and Fairfax County Fire and Rescue. Water rescues on the Potomac River are conducted by the River Rescue and Tactical Services (RRATS) teams, based at Station 10 and Station 30 located in Cabin John.
There are 11 boats between the two Cabin John stations, each designed and equipped for a specific type mission. Montgomery County has nine other boats, though none are typically staffed by personnel with the proper swift water rescue training need for the Potomac River.
Fire rescue workers went out Monday morning for shallow water rescue training, part of MCFRS’ regular monthly training to keep water rescue workers prepared for tough conditions. Check out our photos to see the first responders practice maneuvering the rescue boats in lower water levels and refresher practices for water routes.
Editor's note: This post has been updated.