Cool waters and fast currents from the dams feeding into the Chattahoochee River are two common reasons people need rescuing by the Sandy Springs Fire and Rescue Department’s boat and swimming team, according to Capt. Stacy Bailey.
Sandy Springs’ Swiftwater Rescue Team responds to water rescues in the city as well as surrounding jurisdictions. Each team consists of a boat operator and rescue swimmers trained in rescue techniques and medical care. An inflatable boat called a rapid deployment craft is used to rescue people in shallow waters.
Each year, several people need to be rescued from the river by the Swiftwater team and some die. In April, Sandy Springs helped recover a body near Cobb-Sandy Springs border. Another man died in June 2018 after he jumped from a cliff, hit rocks and fell underwater.
In one incident from May recounted by Bailey, a man fell in the river while taking pictures along the shore and could not get out. The water was so cold he could not control his body enough to swim out of the current, Bailey said.
The Swiftwater team was able to reach him and found him showing signs of hypothermia. He was treated at a hospital and survived. The incident could have been prevented, Bailey said, by staying along marked paths and keeping a life jacket at hand.
The rescue team also responds to many false calls when people lose track of friends or family members and wrongly fear they fell into the river.
“Although a majority of these calls are false calls, rescuers take these reports very seriously,” Bailey said. “This type of call expends many valuable resources from multiple jurisdictions across the metro area.”
“Floating or swimming in the Chattahoochee River puts you in an environment that is totally different than the environment that we live in every day,” Bailey said. “Therefore, special caution needs to be taken by every visitor while on or in the river.”
The following are the Fire Rescue Department’s tips for river safety.
- Be aware of hypothermia. The water in the river can be unexpectedly and unseasonably cold due to water releases from the Buford Dam to produce power. The water comes from the bottom of Lake Sidney Lanier, where the temperature is about 50 degrees.
- Water levels and currents can also change quickly when water is released. The dam release schedule can be checked by visiting nps.gov or calling 770-945-1466.
- Check the levels of the bacteria E. coli to determine the risk of swimming in the river by visiting usgs.gov.
- Don’t use alcohol or drugs while on the river.
- Get off the water before sunset. People on the river after dark are more prone to getting lost, and rescue efforts are more difficult.
- Personal flotation devices, or life jackets, should be worn at all times for safety. They are required on many sections of the river.
- Check the weather.
- Wear proper clothing and footwear.
- Don’t go on the river alone.
- Don’t dive into water, where a shallow bottom, hidden rock or other obstruction could cause a head injury.