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Catlett rescue team braves stormy skies and swift waters

Friday, May. 16 | By Julie Taylor
Photo courtesy Catlett Volunteer Fire Department
The Catlett swift water rescue team applies their skills.
April showers bring May flowers, and May showers bring ... flash flooding.

During the April 30 storm that came through Fauquier, the 9-1-1 dispatch center received five calls from people trapped by the torrential downpour.

So who does 9-1-1 call? The Catlett Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department and its Swift Water Rescue team are trained to free people from rivers, lakes and rising water. Their station houses specialty gear and two boats, said Chief Kalvyn Smith, who leads the team.

"We have a small group of individuals," said Smith. "I would say 15 to 18. That's career and volunteer, because it's a combination system we have in Fauquier."

Last week, when Smith saw the forecast had a strong probability for flash flooding, he staffed the station with members of the swift water rescue team.

"We had 15 to 16 folks on duty the other night [in preparation for the storm]," he said. The station normally has six to eight.

The station houses a motorized support rescue boat and a small walkout boat. They're equipped with dry suits, life preservers (PFDs), and ropes.

During the deluge, they used the boat twice out of the five calls. Both of those calls used the smaller vessel, the walkout boat, which is basically a huge raft.

"We didn't have to put the big boat in yet, thank goodness," said Smith.

During one rescue, a family was stuck inside their vehicle, 75 to 100 feet within rising water. Though the water was only 12 to 15 inches deep, it was enough to halt the car.

"We put the PFDs on the folks that were in the vehicle," said Smith.

The family was floated to safety, but the need for rescue could have been avoided.

Smith said that drivers typically don't recognize a dangerous situation until it's too late. It's almost impossible for a driver to tell how swift the current is, and in many cases the water will either stall out the car or start coming in through the cracks.

"It's very dangerous," said Chief Ian Brill of the Remington Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department. "As a loose guideline, if it's deeper than two inches, we discourage people from driving through it."

Brill said that even six inches of water, depending on the type of vehicle, is enough to float a car off the roadway.

To be certified as a part of the swift water rescue team, three levels of intensive training is required.

Swift water operations is a 24- hour course, typically held in Great Falls or at the Shenandoah River.

The two other levels are done in the classroom — swift water technique, which requires 40 hours, and boat operator, which requires 36 hours.

Brill said Remington firefighters are currently involved at each level of training and are always striving to become better in an effort to protect Fauquier residents – particularly because of Remington's proximity to the Rappahannock River.

"People are very unaware of the force of water," Brill said. "The quicker the water is moving, the more force it applies on human body or vehicle."

He said that water moving at three miles per hour equates to 33 pounds of force. Similarly, increase water speed to 12 miles per hour, and 538 pounds of force will be pin the object—whether it is a car, or human body.

"That's a pretty substantial force," said Brill.

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