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New regional partnership aims to execute effective water rescues across Central Virginia

Posted at 6:26 PM, Aug 04, 2023

RICHMOND, Va. -- Hart and his "DD," Sandy Albert, came down the James River near Brown's Island to watch one of the trains go by. They missed that sight by a few minutes, but instead, got to watch river rescue training by multiple local agencies in action.

The motor boats crushing up rapids and pulley-rope rescue systems were a welcome sight for them both.

"VROOM!” Hart said. "That fast boat going fast, and jump over that waterfall!”

“We’ve seen a drone, and we’ve seen rescue boats, and the coolest thing is we saw the boat go up over the [rapid]," Albert said with a smile.

Seeing training like this is new for Hart, but carrying it out is far from new for area rescue crews. Friday, officials rolled out a new partnership they hope will lead to more effective rescue responses around the region.

Seven fire departments near the James River — plus several other supporting agencies — have formed the Regional River Response group.

Leaders from fire departments in Goochland, Powhatan, Henrico, Richmond City, Chesterfield, Hanover, and Hopewell have spearheaded efforts to maximize speed and efficiency when responding to calls on the river, which spans a wide swath of the region and presents a host of very different challenges for crews at various portions.

“Having that pre-formed relationship makes things more efficient, communication is better, and in turn, the overall operation happens faster," Hanover Fire/EMS Captain Caleb Wilson said.

The group first met last summer, after 23-year-old Lauren Winstead and 28-year-old Sarah Erway, who were floating the river with friends, went missing near Bosher's Dam. Their bodies were found in the river several days later.

“We were in the water approximately four days, long days, looking for the two girls that we lost. We eventually found both of them, and I think we just decided regionally the dangers out there in the water, and to our community, and to our first responders, that we needed to bolster our response," Henrico Fire Deputy Chief Jim Courtney said.

There are dozens of small put-in points along the James from Goochland/Powhatan down to Hopewell. Crews said this partnership will help with information and experience sharing so that river rescue teams can help each other out.

"Resources are limited, so when you have an incident on the river, you need all the resources and help you can get from your regional partners. So, that’s why we’re here, especially on the river, saving lives," Richmond Fire Assistant Chief Jeffery Segal said.

One of the biggest changes to come out of the partnership deals with dispatch. Soon, when someone calls 9-1-1 to report an emergency on the river, dispatchers will be able to map where crews will need to respond, and the three closest agencies will be sent out, instead of a single jurisdiction.

“It gets us there in a much quicker time frame. We’re no longer really relying on the on-scene incident commander to pull the trigger on regional requests," Courtney said. "That way, it gets us all in route around the same time, and gets us there around the same time, and really triples our footprint in a timely manner.”

Hart and his "DD" love going down to the James to enjoy the sights; Albert said she hopes everyone enjoys what the river has to offer while also being smart. As cool it is for them to witness the training, being on the other side of it is far from cool.

“They need to learn a lot and know a lot before they get in the water. They need to listen to experience," Albert said.

Officials said is important to never attempt something on the water that's outside your experience level, remain aware of changing conditions, and check water levels before you head out to the river.

Depend on CBS 6 News and WTVR.com for in-depth coverage of this important local story. Anyone with more information can email newstips@wtvr.com to send a tip.

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