Richmond water rescue team cautions people to wear life jackets on the James

‘You have all the confidence in the world until you take that first gulp of water’
Updated: Jul. 22, 2020 at 6:48 AM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - Looser pandemic restrictions, and warmer weather have increased the popularity of the James in recent weeks, but Lieutenant Shaun Whitely with Richmond Water Rescue Team at Fire Station 13 says more people on the water has come at a price.

Richmond Fire Departments Water Rescue Teams have conducted 53 rescues calls since the start of the year.

In the last month, we’ve had probably about 30 rescues and we’ve had the opportunities while we’re out on the weekend to patrol Belle Isle area to react pretty quickly to situations,” said Whitely. “All too often by the time we finish we hear the same thing over and over again, ‘I didn’t expect that.’”

To combat the uptick of incidents on the water, Whitely and his team of eight certified water rescuers have been conducting training exercises on the James at various river levels. Tuesday afternoon the James was only at four feet which Whitely says is one of the lowest levels the river has been at all year, but he says James can still be very dangerous if underestimated.

“When the water level is above five feet you are supposed to wear a personal flotation device (PFD) regardless, but when it’s below its kind of just swim at your own risk. “You have all the confidence in the world until that first gulp of water you take and everyone is going to have very a similar reaction and that’s panic,” Whitely said.

During the exercises, Whitely approached swimmers and spoke with them about the importance of wearing a PFD’s. He says that lack of a safety vest is the most common reason why people have to get a rescue in the first place.

Whitely and his team also demonstrated safety measures swimmers how get stuck in the James can implement in order to get them out of a dangerous situation.

Whitely says when in doubt think ‘nose up toes up which means keeping your feet and nose above water with arms to your side while pointing your head in the direction you want and letting the current get you there.

If possible find he says to find an eddy, an area where a rock or large object water is blocking the current where you can cling to keep from being swept away.

Once secure Whitely says it’s important to stay put until a water rescue team is able to reach you.

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