This story was corrected at 10:33 a.m. on Nov. 8, 2012. An explanation follows.
While people were out buying batteries, bread, milk and toilet paper in preparation for Hurricane Sandy, members of the Sandy Spring Volunteer Fire Department’s water rescue team had their own preparations to make.
Capt. Mark Brown said he and other members of the River Rescue and Tactical Services Team were told to prepare their homes, the fire stations, and then get ready to be deployed for up to 72 hours.
This included checking all equipment and packing provisions, so they could leave the station within seconds of a call coming in.
The RRATS personnel are a dedicated strike team, which means they are ready and standing by. While others staff apparatus, such as ambulances or fire engines, the RRATS personnel only staff boats. This ensures they are readily available should there be a water-related emergency, such as a stranded motorist.
During last week’s super storm, Sandy Spring’s water rescue team ran one call, for a car stranded in Germantown. The family, which included children, was pulled to safety prior to their arrival.
Mark Brown estimates that the team runs between eight and 12 water rescue calls each year.
“We have recovered four bodies from the Triadelphia Reservoir in the past two years,” he said. “Other than that, it really depends on the weather. This year we had a drought, so the water levels weren’t as high, but last year we were running our butts off. Water rescues are considered ‘low frequency, high risk’ calls, which means we don’t run them often, but they are the most dangerous thing we do.”
The Sandy Spring Volunteer Fire Department’s water rescue team began in the 1970s, when two members, both recreational scuba divers, formed an underwater rescue team. While that no longer exists, the department has evolved into the second-largest water rescue program in the county.
Because the Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department is located near the Potomac River, county water rescue operations are based out of that department. RRATS is composed of Swift Water Rescue Technicians who specialize in river, flood and ice rescue.
Less obvious is the fact that the SSVFD is responsible for emergencies on local bodies of water, including Triadelphia and Rocky Gorge reservoirs, Lake Needwood, Lake Bernard Frank, Lake Hallowell, and the small lakes in Olney Mill and Olney Manor Park. These areas combined equal approximately 2,500 acres of water.
In 1990, shortly after the swift-water death of a motorist near the intersection of Layhill and Norbeck roads, the SSVFD purchased its first rescue boat. Now, the fleet includes three inflatable boats, an airboat and two all-terrain vehicles.
“Several of us just took this program under our wing and, at first, it was just a flat-water deal,” said SSVFD Capt. Mark Brown. “Once we began to run more flood rescues, we realized we needed better equipment and better training.”
While most firefighters go through basic swift-water rescue awareness training, they must become certified as Swift Water Rescue Technicians to enter the water.
SSVFD’s Water Rescue Team currently has 14 members, all volunteers. Six are Swift Water Rescue Technicians, and the others are in the training process, said Mark Brown.
While the main component is housed at Cabin John, Sandy Spring’s RRATS cover the northeast portion of the county, along the Patuxent and Hawlings river basins.
“Cabin John deals with swift water every day all year long, so they are our core team,” said Assistant Chief Scott Goldstein, special operations chief for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services. “Over the past three to five years, Sandy Spring has done a very good job of bringing swift-water capability to the Sandy Spring-Olney community.”
He said their success is a combination of adding equipment and training good people. The two teams train together on a monthly basis, so that when incidents occur, they interact well.
“The career and the volunteers are one swift-water element,” he said.
Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department Assistant Chief Jimmy Seavey Sr. serves at the team lead for the county’s RRATS team. He proposed that it become a county specialty team in 1995, and is happy to have Sandy Spring on board.
“When the Sandy Spring group joined the county team, it provides us a nice resource on the eastern side of the county,” he said. “During Sandy, we were able to have strike teams deployed to each quadrant of the county, and the calls we got shows that we are shooting our arrows in the right direction.”
Although SSVFD Chief George Brown is proud of the RRATS team, he reminds drivers not to enter flooded roadways. The new catchphrase is “Turn around, don’t drown.”
“We take our boats out to open houses and other events to push water safety,” he said. “I’d rather spend 10 to 15 minutes explaining the dangers than two hours trying to rescue people.”
In an earlier version of the story, we incorrectly stated that a RRATS strike team rescued a family stranded during Hurricane Sandy. In fact, the family was pulled to safety prior to the team’s arrival.