Members of Stafford Fire and Rescue and its Swift Water Rescue Team were looking for a better way to locate recreational users in trouble on the Rappahannock River. They teamed up with the City of Fredericksburg to install a “mile marker” system to aid people to pinpoint their location and recently unveiled a video aimed at educating boaters, floaters and others.
“We had people call us in distress, and when we asked them where they were and what they could see, all they could say was ‘trees and water’,” said Lt. Jonathan Hensen of Stafford Fire and Rescue. “When we answer a call on the river, it takes multiple responders and an average of four hours to run, incurring around $16,000 in expenses. We knew there had to be a better way so we investigated other practices to find one that would help us.”
The Rappahannock River is the longest free-flowing river on the East Coast and comes together with the Rapidan River at what is called “The Confluence,” about 10 miles upriver from Stafford and Fredericksburg. Except for the area around Fredericksburg, the river is heavily wooded on both sides.
Stafford reached out to Officer Joe Young of the Fredericksburg Police Department, who is the City’s Watershed Manager and patrols both sides of the river on easements owned by the City. Lt. Hensen pointed out that the Friends of the Rappahannock have a comprehensive trail guide to the river that identifies mileage along the river, but that users of the river have no way of knowing what mile they are on or passing. Officer Young, Lt. Hensen and other members of Stafford Fire and Rescue’s Swift Water Rescue team began researching how they could accomplish signage for miles.
They found that the National Park Service uses mile marker signs along the Shenandoah River like mile markers on a highway. It helps recreational users more accurately pinpoint their location, saving time and money and protecting the health and safety of responders tromping through the wilderness.
“We worked with the Friends of the Rappahannock to come up with a system of adhering signs safely to the trees along the river that would not detract from the scenery or damage the trees,” said Officer Joe Young. “Then we spent several days kayaking and canoeing and physically attaching the signs ourselves. We made the video to help people understand how to use the signs.”
This summer members of Stafford Fire and Rescue’s Swift Water Rescue Team and Officer Joe Young placed each sign by hand. They canoed and kayaked down the river with tools and supplies, stopping to climb trees and place the sizeable brown metal signs with white lettering. The signs are located on “river left” if you are floating downstream on the Rappahannock. Emergency personnel ask users of the river to familiarize themselves with the mile signs and to note their location via the mile markers as they move along the river. These markers start at Mile 14 on the Rapidan River moving through the Confluence (where the Rappahannock and Rapidan Rivers meet) and continue along on the Rappahannock River.
“This was a total grassroots effort by our Fire and Rescue and Officer Young,” said Chairman of the Stafford Board of Supervisors Meg Bohmke, Falmouth District. “I am pleased we could work together with the City of Fredericksburg to make the river safer and improve our ability to locate those in distress.”
Officials plan to distribute the video to river outfitters and local schools as well as on locality websites and social media to educate the public about the signs and how to use them. The video may be accessed on staffordcountyva.gov and fredericksburgva.gov.