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Gwinnett fire department practices river rescues as busy season nears

Members of the Gwinnett County fire department’s swiftwater and technical rescue teams trained on the Chattahoochee River near the Buford Dam Monday. They practiced several different rescue scenarios and techniques. (Staff Photo: Tyler Estep)

Members of the Gwinnett County fire department’s swiftwater and technical rescue teams trained on the Chattahoochee River near the Buford Dam Monday. They practiced several different rescue scenarios and techniques. (Staff Photo: Tyler Estep)

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Members of the Gwinnett County fire department’s swiftwater and technical rescue teams trained on the Chattahoochee River near the Buford Dam Monday. They practiced several different rescue scenarios and techniques. (Staff Photo: Tyler Estep)

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Members of the Gwinnett County fire department’s swiftwater and technical rescue teams trained on the Chattahoochee River near the Buford Dam Monday. They practiced several different rescue scenarios and techniques. (Staff Photo: Tyler Estep)

BUFORD — Near Buford Dam, the danger is obvious.

The Army Corps of Engineers sounds horns that alert fishermen, tubers, swimmers and boaters that water is being released from Lake Lanier into the Chattahoochee River. The water levels rise quickly, but, over the 2.5-mile stretch from the dam to Ga. Highway 20, the warnings are loud and offer plenty of time to prepare. The regulars know to call ahead to get the release schedule.

As the river winds further through northern Gwinnett, though, problems arise.

“It’s downstream in some of the other parks where we see some of the issues,” Lt. Matt Jamieson said. “Basically it’s just people being unfamiliar with the river.”

Jamieson was joined by other members of the Gwinnett County fire’s swiftwater rescue team and representatives from the department’s technical rescue team Monday as they trained just around the bend from the Buford Dam. As warmer weather continues the river will get busier, and, should something go awry, the county’s primary line of defense will be ready.

The teams, representing fire stations 14 and 24, ran several different exercises Monday, putting men, ropes and boats in the water.

“It’s invaluable to be able to perform an activity before you have to do it under pressure,” Jamieson said. “You already have a gameplan, you already know the way you’re going to make stuff work and how things are going to happen. You’ve always got to be prepared for the unexpected, but to be able to do this ahead of time, you can’t put a measure on it.”

The amount of incidents the swiftwater rescue team and its colleagues respond to each year varies, but officials said most incidents happen after water is released into the river from the dam. The water typically takes 45 minutes to pass under Ga. Highway 20 and continues on toward Fulton County.

The rise in water levels is less noticeable downstream but can still create issues in a hurry.

“A lot of times people get caught on the river not knowing, or not aware, that when they release (water) how quickly it rises and how easily they can become trapped wherever they’re at,” Driver-Engineer Zachary Schaller said. “Even if they’re on a little rock fly-fishing. They could be fishing and by the time they turn around the water’s too high. They can’t get off the rock and get back to the shore.”

Those using the river should wear lifejackets at all times. For a daily schedule of water release times, call 770-945-1466.